Lessons on the Three Poisons from Barbie and Ken

Following the Barbie film’s win for best song with “I’m Just Ken” at the 2024 Critics’ Choice Awards, associate editor Mihiri Tillakaratne explores what Ken’s journey teaches us about Buddhism’s three poisons: craving, anger, and ignorance.

Mihiri Tillakaratne16 January 2024
Ryan Gosling as Ken in the 2023 film “Barbie.” Photo © Warner Bros. Pictures.

Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed film Barbie has resonated with audiences everywhere. It was named one of the American Film Institute top ten films of 2023, nominated for more Golden Globe awards than any other 2023 film, and nominated for a record-breaking eighteen Critic’s Choice Awards.

It’s also a deeply Buddhist film.

Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives a happy life in Barbie Land. One day, her perfect life begins to unravel, so she travels to the real world to find Gloria (America Ferrera), the human woman whose negative thoughts have invaded Barbie’s existence. When she does, she becomes changed forever.

While Barbie’s journey of awakening reflects Siddhartha’s journey towards enlightenment, Ken’s journey illustrates the Three Poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Also called the Three Unwholesome Roots (Pali: akusala-mula), the Three Poisons are kleshas (Sanskrit) or kilesas (Pali), mental states that defile the mind and lead to suffering, consisting of attachment (Pali: lobha), anger(dosa), and delusion (moha). Ken (Ryan Gosling), desperate for Barbie’s attention (lobha), becomes resentful when he doesn’t get it (dosa). To deal with his negative feelings (dosa), he becomes attached to an ideology (lobha) that he erroneously believes will improve his life (moha).

Like Ken, we cannot be blessed and absolved of the harm have done. Instead, living a Buddhist life requires work and effort.

Though Ken wants Barbie to love him, she only sees him as a friend. The film’s narrator (Helen Mirren) tells us, “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” Ken is consumed by his craving for Barbie’s love, telling her, “I only exist within the warmth of your gaze.”

When he travels with Barbie to the real world, Ken is intrigued by the respect he gets as a man, so different from his experience in Barbie Land. To investigate, he checks out books from the library with titles like Why Men Rule (Literally), Men and Wars, and The Origins of the Patriarchy. Afterwards, Ken wonders, “Why didn’t Barbie tell me about patriarchy, which, to my understanding, is where men and horses run everything?” Clearly, Ken misinterprets this ideology, but because he feels neglected, he latches onto the first thing he believes will help him.

Worse than internalizing an ideology without critical examination, Ken acts upon his misunderstandings. Taking his interpretation as gospel, he then spreads on his ignorance to others, returning to Barbie Land to teach the other Kens about “the immaculate, impeccable, seamless garment of logic that is patriarchy.” Ken uses his erroneous understanding of patriarchy to transform Barbie Land into Ken Land, brainwashing the Barbies into compliance, turning Barbie’s Dreamhouse into Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House, and planning to codify the Kens’ dominance by changing the Barbie Land Constitution into “a government for the Kens, of the Kens, and by the Kens.”

Ken’s ignorance and attachment to patriarchal ideologies not only leads to others’ suffering, but also his own. Ken’s inability to understand his own desires makes things worse, or as he laments, “I have feelings that I can’t explain, driving me insane.” Ken does not try to examine the underlying feelings that led him to embrace patriarchy in the first place—the resentment at not getting what he wants, which in turn fuels his anger.

Ken’s story reminds me of my experiences with those exploring Buddhism for the first time. Like Ken, they may jump into Buddhism without critical thinking or self-reflection. They may only explore meditation practice without trying to understand the dhamma. Or they may find only reading Buddhist books sufficient without putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice. They do not realize that Buddhism requires both understanding of the teachings as well as active practice. After their reading and meditation experiences, they become attached to their interpretation of Buddhism, so they condescendingly see other experiences of Buddhism — such as my own as a Sri Lankan American Buddhist — as “inauthentic” or “impure.”

Ken’s obsession with using horse imagery in everywhere in Ken Land also remind me of those — whether they are exploring Buddhism or lifelong Buddhists — who become attached to the aesthetics of Buddhism. They use Buddhist aesthetics to makes claims to a Buddhist authenticity. For example, my “home altar” is nothing more than a wooden Buddha statue on top of a bookshelf. Seeing this, some have told me I’m “doing Buddhism wrong” for not having “authentic” Buddhist accoutrement, like incense holders, candles, singing bowls, meditation pillows, or yoga bricks. In their ignorance and insecurity, they lash out in anger, just as Ken lashes out in anger at Barbie, because they, like Ken, are attached to their interpretation of an ideology they believe will change their lives.

Ultimately, patriarchy only makes Ken more unhappy. After Gloria and Barbie save the day, Ken cries and admits, “It was hard running stuff. I didn’t love it.” He says, “To be honest, when I found out that patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest anyway.” While it’s certainly a funny line, it gets to the heart of the issue: ignorance. Ken’s unthinking embrace of patriarchy due to his emotions leads to so much suffering. At the end of the film, he examines the feelings of want, neglect, and resentment that led him to this ideology, and contemplates how to live a life not centered around his desire for Barbie. In the end, Barbie helps him realize that he is fine being “just Ken.”  

Ken’s journey also reflects the lessons of the Kalama Sutta, which advises us to not believe things just because we’ve been told they are true, whether in books, by respected teachers, or even by religious figures. Instead, we must think for ourselves and truly examine the belief. If it benefits all beings, we must accept it and live up to it. If Ken took the time to reflect on the beliefs he learned, he would have realized that embracing patriarchy would lead to suffering for everyone in Barbie Land and for himself.

There are more Buddhist themes in Barbie, particularly in how the film depicts agency. As humans, we have the agency to change our minds and conditions, to move from ignorance to understanding. There are no easy solutions in Buddhist thought and practice. Like Ken, we cannot be blessed and absolved of the harm have done. Instead, living a Buddhist life requires work and effort. We must grapple with the Three Poisons of attachment, anger, and ignorance that affect us every day and move towards their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.

Mihiri Tillakaratne

Mihiri Tillakaratne

Mihiri Tillakaratne (she/her) is an associate editor at Lion’s Roar. She has a PhD in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality (UC Berkeley), a M.A. in Ethnic Studies (UC Berkeley), and a M.A. in Asian American Studies (UCLA). She learned Pali and studied Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in post-independence Sri Lanka at Harvard. Mihiri is the director of I Take Refuge, a documentary on Sri Lankan American Buddhist identity, and the founder of Sri Lankan Americans for Social Justice.