Gender and identity are at the heart of the recent Barbie film release. Character Ken's gender role reversal highlights the modern gender neutrality movement in menswear.
Gender roles are at the heart of director Greta Gerwig's film Barbie, a theme with an ironic twist since the dolls leading the action famously don't have genitals.
It explores the contrast between Barbieland - where various Barbies dominate professionally and politically while the Kens play only supporting roles - and the real world, where the situation is reversed.
The two worlds collide when Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) set off on a quest to find out why Barbie is suddenly plagued by human-style existential angst, cellulite and can no longer stand on tiptoes.
Behind the fun script lie the serious issues of gender and sexual identity that are at the forefront of much social debate today. Barbie and Ken's fashion choices are a key part of the plot, with the norm in one world appearing to be ridiculous in the other.
It raises the question of how far our social and gender roles are constrained by what we wear and how we might break free from that. One current trend in the real world, for example, centres on a movement towards genderless menswear.
The film has enjoyed massive success so far, celebrating the biggest opening weekend of any film directed by a woman. It debuted at $155m in North America and $337m globally.
Robbie offers a stellar performance as Barbie but it's Gosling’s interpretation of loyal boyfriend Ken that steals the show. The actor described his role in an interview with MTV News as the one he was born to play.
There's even talk of Gosling being nominated for an Oscar for his memorable comedic performance.
Ken's character goes through various changes and struggles to break free from Barbie's shadow, lamenting that he only exists as an extension of her - there’s no Ken without Barbie. She is the sole purpose of his existence. By bringing these characters to life, Gerwig highlights the important messages given to us from early childhood on gender roles and identity.
According to the contemporary culture and lifestyle company Hypebeast, Barbie and Ken’s relationship goes through a gender role reversal. Ken embraces elements of conventional femininity due largely to his role as a trophy boyfriend, something most often associated with women.
The new era of menswear
Ken’s outfits have gender-neutral elements similar to those seen on recent fashion runways and in the street. Some modern menswear is characterised by its unconventional rule-breaking. This new era of men’s fashion takes risks that have until now only been seen in womenswear.
Dubbed “new masculinity” by Hypebeast, this includes skin-bearing garments such as cropped tops and short shorts. Ken is seen to embrace this style with an outfit made of a sleeveless denim jacket worn with nothing underneath, paired with matching denim jeans and Calvin Klein underwear. This is similar to styles seen on the runways for this summer as part of the Givenchy collection.
In the same way, Ken’s neon rollerblade outfit is unique for its bold colours reminiscent of another runway look for this season from fashion designer Tom Ford.
Trend expert Julian Daynov told Fashion United that menswear is heading in an experimental direction as questions are raised about why fashion choices should be dictated by gender. This menswear evolution is a reflection of shifting attitudes around gender identity. Daynov sees today’s menswear as “more open towards modern codes and individuality.” The idea is that gender no longer defines clothing rules.
Some celebrities are drawing attention to this trend with their gender-neutral looks, setting themselves as role models for men’s fashion today.
Singer and actor Harry Styles is one of them. He's considered a fashion icon who often wins praise for his bold and sometimes feminine looks.
Similar is rapper, singer and actor Jaden Smith who is praised for his decision to include skirts as part of his everyday wear. A staple in designer Thom Browne's collection for Spring Summer 2023.
Near naked truth
In 2022, actor Timothée Chalamet was seen wearing a red backless pantsuit at the Venice film festival which caught the attention of many.
Australian singer and actor Troye Sivan recently bought out a music video for his new single Rush, for which he and the dancers wear very little clothing, an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Ken's style in Barbie.