Why ‘Barbie,’ ‘Poor Things’ Actually Encourage Toxic Masculinity

Oscar-nominated films wear their feminism with pride, but there's a catch

The two biggest feminist films of 2023, “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” are poised to be heavy hitters at this year’s Oscars.

And yet — even though both films claim to be overt pro-feminist manifestos — what both also have most in common is that they actually encourage the very toxic masculinity that they claim to be deconstructing.

Evangelicalism may hold the true answer they’re looking for.

It was a banner year for feminist cinema in 2023, with multiple female-led and created films gaining massive box office or critical acclaim (and often both). Think “Barbie,” “Poor Things,” “Pricilla,” “May December,” “Past Lives,” and “Are You There God It’s Me Margaret?”

So it’s not a surprise that two of the most celebrated of these movies, “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” would be poised to be major players at the Oscars, up for nominations in multiple categories each.

Barbie | Main Trailer

Both “Barbie” and “Poor Things” have many similarities – both featuring heroines leaving their safe, idealized homes to find themselves and ending up having to smash the patriarchy along the way.

But the biggest similarity between the two films is that they encourage the very toxic masculinity they claim to despise. This is because they perpetuate the myth, encouraged by misogynists like social media influencer Andrew Tate and feminist films alike, that men can only choose between being toxic oppressors of women or virtuous doormats for them.

This is a trope that is extremely common in many American films but is particularly overt in “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” which I call the “Doormat Ken or Douche Ken” trope.

RELATED: Critic vs. Critic: ‘Barbie’

In “Barbie,” Ryan Gosling’s Ken starts out in the fantasy world of “Barbie Land” with the other Kens and Barbies as a typical doormat “nice guy” who adores Margot Robbie’s Barbie and treats her well – but never stands up to her when she and the other Barbies demean him or treat them like a second-class citizen.

He is “Doormat Ken.”

Once Ken enters the real world, he discovers a place where men aren’t treated that way. So he comes back and stands up to Barbie, and then takes over Barbieland (renaming it “Kendom”) and turns the Barbies into brainwashed dolls who cater to his and the other Kens every whim.

We call this “Deplorable Ken.” This is, of course, short-lived. The Barbies overthrow Kendom and restore order to Barbie Land. The day is saved.

Happy ending!

Barbie Movie Clip - Looking Good Barbie (2023)

But when Ken is defeated, he doesn’t ever become a proper synthesis of the two Kens. He never becomes a Ken who is able to assert his right to be treated well by Barbie, or to set healthy boundaries or to have a positive relationship with her without dominating her.

Instead, he reverts to Doormat Ken. He does whatever she says, follows everything she says, and — along with the other Kens — accepts whatever status she grants him.

And it isn’t just Gosling’s Ken. All the men in the story are placed into “Deplorable Ken” and “Doormat Ken” categories. The other Kens also are put back into second-class citizen status and gleefully accept it. Allen, even though he’s willing to defend Gloria and Sasha from the Kens, is rewarded by being yelled at to “shut up” when he asserts what he thinks they should do.

Likewise, Gloria’s husband is portrayed as a nice guy, but also someone who can (and should be) ignored or put down for a laugh without a fuss. This means that “Doormat Ken” and “Deplorable Ken” are the only versions of masculinity that men are given in the movie.

POOR THINGS | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

Likewise, the entire plot of “Poor Things” involves Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman created from the body of a pregnant woman who committed suicide and the brain of her unborn child, growing into a young woman by defying the control of the men around her and then becoming powerful enough to control them instead.

Whether it’s her creator who tries to keep her locked in his house, her fiance who tries to prevent her from leaving with another man (how dare he!), the man she leaves him for who gets upset when she sleeps with other men and steals his money (how dare he!) or her ex-husband who wants to trap her in his house.

Men are portrayed as bad when they try to set limits on the woman’s behavior for treating them badly. They’re also portrayed as good only when they let her do whatever she wants and never set any boundaries with her. (As her fiancé ultimately does at the end of the film).


This isn’t just a problem with “Barbie” or “Poor Things.” These movies merely follow in the tradition of most non-rom-com female-centric films of the recent past which portray men as either toxic misogynists or doormats for the heroine.

Increasingly so, romantic comedies also now fall under this category. The male heroes are good only if they never stand up to the heroine or tell her that she’s wrong.

There are exceptions, but they tend only to prove the rule. The men either end up dying at the end like, for example, Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” or Kyle Reese in “The Terminator.” This is significant because male-centric films do not generally treat their female characters that way.

Female leads in male-centric films tend to be positive characters who fight alongside the male hero in helpful ways and serve as their conscience to help challenge the man to grow in virtue.

In fact, such movies often encourage the moral leadership of women and their role in redeeming men. Are their roles limited? Yes. But they are limited largely to positive characters without being doormats. Are women often sexualized? Yes. But even that, their sexuality is treated as a positive quality.

This could be one reason why it’s often said that one of the most replicated facts in the social sciences is that both men and women have more positive views of women than they do of men — contrary to what “Barbie” claims.


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This feminist literary tradition goes back much further. As Nancy Pearcey points out in her book, “The Toxic War on Masculinity,” for almost the entirety of Western civilization, men were considered more virtuous than women. But starting with the 19th century, that narrative flipped on its head.

Starting with the Industrial Revolution, when men left their roles as patriarchs of the home for the anonymous and competitive world of business, for the first time, men and masculinity stopped being described as primarily as a matter of virtues like honesty, hard work and civil service.

They were replaced, Pearcy argues, by “ambition, dominance and strength of will.”

One of the ways that women attempted to reform men was through novels. When the novel first exploded in the 19th century, the majority of books were written by women. And the majority of them were about women being oppressed by men who needed to be reformed.

The virtuous wives would either succeed in converting the men — often when the men experienced a tragedy like the death of their child — or he would lose everything and be cast out. Historian Callum Brown suggests that the demonization of men was the greatest cultural triumph of Evangelical literature.

But this didn’t result in men being reformed, but instead embracing their toxic masculinity. They took over the novel industry (and then the movie industry) with stories that celebrated those traits, with novels like “Tom Sawyer,” “Call of The Wild”, and Westerns — which later also jumped to movies — James Bond films and movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest” that celebrated male rebellion, sexual promiscuity, violence and misogyny.

Not only did the attempt by women to reform men fail, women actually followed men’s lead instead. Women followed men out of the home and into the workplace, and with birth control and abortion they followed them into promiscuity as part of a larger secular world.

For example, in modern feminist films like “Barbie,” the happy ending isn’t turning Ken into a doormat so she can marry him, but making him a doormat so she can leave him.

It should go without saying, but teaching that men can only be good if they never stand up to a woman is very bad for both males and females. It teaches women to see healthy men who stand up to them as exhibiting toxic behavior, and that demanding doormat behavior from men is the sign of a healthy woman.

For men, teaching them that they can be only doormats or nasty guarantees that they will be the only kind of men that you will have.


It’s ironic that “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig and Tate both have the same view of men: That their only choices are to be a doormat or domineering. But Gerwig is the greater fool because she believes that if she offers those two choices to men, that they will somehow not choose to be dominant.

So what is the alternative to these two Kens?

As Pearcey points out, the most successful antidote to toxic masculinity today is evangelical Christianity. In the studies she gathered for her book, evangelical men who attend church at least three times a month have the lowest rates of domestic violence, lowest rates of divorce, highest rates of positive engagement with their children and the highest rates of self-reported happiness in their wives of any large segment of the U.S. population.

Likewise, studies done by Marxist feminist anthropologist Elizabeth Brusco, as well and sociologist Bernice Martin, and the book “Half The Sky” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, found that wherever evangelicalism has been exported, men’s vices were reduced.

As a result, the well-being of women increased.

Why? It seems like evangelical Christians pitch to men “servant leadership” (highly criticized by both the right and the left) as the most attractive and persuasive synthesis for men today. Evangelical’s vision for masculinity as a hero who leads on behalf of others gives males the self-respect they crave while directing it toward serving others rather than exploiting them.

As “Barbie” and “Poor Things” remind us, secular society doesn’t have an answer for men for how to live besides being either “Doormat Ken” or “Deplorable Ken.”

The answer is found not in embracing either of those choices. Instead, embracing the answer Christianity gave long ago and continues to give each and every day.

This story originally appeared at ReligionUnplugged.com.

Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.world, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephholmesstudios.com.


  1. I assume that the study showing that Evangelical men are happier in marriage and have more satisfied wives was focused only on that population. However, it should also be noted that Catholic men who are orthodox in practice and belief are similarly successful. I suspect that this holds true for any Christian belief system that, like evangelicalism, holds to orthodox beliefs.

  2. Well done … Well done …….. I have been trying to explain these thoughts to people whose initial reactions are “a womens lib film” in general. Thank you for taking to time to unwrap this fun and fascinating film with you comments. (and yes, I did buy my “Knough” shirt.

  3. Women want who they desire, the bad boys Chad, that they can’t control, but if they do, they hate the soft simp that they could control. That’s why relationships fail inevitably. Less men want this toxicity of contrary female objectives. Women are fickle. They can’t cook, clean, and be submissive wives that are necessary for a healthy relationship where the man leads. This is what happens when women think they can shop for a man.

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