Hear Us Out: An Ode To 'Barbie's' Ken, Our Unwitting Work/Life Balance King

"My job is just beach" is a mantra that actually carries a life lesson.
Should our jobs just be beach this summer? Above, Ryan Gosling as Ken in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie."
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures
Should our jobs just be beach this summer? Above, Ryan Gosling as Ken in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie."

If you, like millions of Americans, have seen the new blockbuster movie “Barbie,” then you know that one of the highlights is Ken, as played by Ryan Gosling.

Unlike the other Kens in Barbie Land who have jobs like lifeguard or surfer, Gosling’s Ken has simply one job, and it’s “beach.” If he tries a different vocation like surfing, as he does in the movie to impress Margot Robbie’s Barbie, he crashes and hurts himself. He is at his best when accepting his excellence at doing beach.

When a group of Barbies check to see if he’s OK after his surfing accident, Gosling’s Ken tells them: “You know surfer’s not even my job ― and it is not lifeguard, which is a common misconception. Yeah, ’cause actually, my job? It’s just beach.”

It’s a wink to the fact that in reality, a great many Ken dolls over the years have had the occupation of “just beach.” There were a dozen versions of Ken between 1962 and 2002 that weren’t Sailor Ken, or Photographer Ken, or Tennis Player Ken, but simply Beach Bum Ken. In Greta Gerwig’s film, though, being a beach bum is no bad thing. In this world, Ken has no dream house and no car, but he does have beach. He is Beach Ken, and the Barbies encourage and respect this role in their society.

As Hari Nef’s Dr. Barbie tells Ken: “What a good job you do at beach.”

It’s not just Ken who wants to do beach full-time. People online have been joking about their own professional beaching aspirations:

This is Kenergy we could try embracing, but it doesn’t need to involve a real beach.

Not to get too deep into a movie about a Mattel toy, but Ken embodies an energy ― nay, a Kenergy ― that more of us should adopt when it comes to our leisure pursuits outside the hustle of working.

Doing nothing is actually something to be treasured and cultivated. Artist and writer Jenny Odell, in her book “How to Do Nothing,” writes:

Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive ... The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

For Odell, doing nothing could mean an invitation to put down your phone and join friends for a walk in a rose garden. The idea is to resist the demands on our attention that our devices constantly impose, and to encourage yourself to notice and maintain the bonds between nature and people that already exist in your life.

In other words, it means listening. “To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there,” Odell writes.

For Ken, what’s there is a beach filled with friends. Here’s where the movie diverts from reality: Where most people’s jobs are filled with tasks, deadlines and actual work that needs to be done, Ken’s beach job entails... well, none of that. He does do something; it’s just something outside of the demands of jobs we typically recognize.

Gosling’s Ken does commit himself to the seriousness of “doing beach,” whatever that might entail. (If it means looking good in a pastel-striped summer outfit so Barbie will grace him with her attention, then he’s ready to impress. If it involves a “beach off” with Simu Liu’s Ken to determine who’s the best at doing beach, then he is also up to the task.)

But there’s a lesson here for us all. Those of us who work intensely likely feel a strong need to take a break from it, which is why Ken’s job resonates with so many of us. While Ken’s professional life is sublimely chill, he knows it’s hard work to dedicate your days to hanging out on a beach. And if you’ve ever struggled to log off and relax from work, you know that Ken’s job ― though different from the various Barbies’ jobs of president, reporter or doctor ― is worth learning how to do.

“Doing beach” resists a precise definition. It can mean whatever you do to take time off to rest and do what you will. When Liu was asked to describe Ken’s beach job in an interview, he said: “It’s really a state of not doing anything.”

So it is.

Maybe Kenergy will strike you suddenly, like it did for Gosling. “Very little is known about Kenergy, and we don’t have the funding for the research,” Gosling told “Extra.” “We know that it’s real, you know? In my case it came on as a rash, and then it turned into a tan. And then suddenly you’re shaving your legs, and you’re bleaching your hair, and you’re wearing bespoke neon Rollerblades.”

Close