During interviews leading up to the release of his new Netflix thriller The Gray Man, Ryan Gosling had a surprising amount to say about his role as Ken in Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s film based on the iconic fashion doll line. But one phrase in particular stuck out among the rest of Gosling’s descriptions about the film: “Ken-ergy.” Although he didn’t formally define it, the actor suggested that you know when you encounter it; as Gosling told Entertainment Tonight, “You have a Ken in your life, and you know that Ken has Ken-ergy.”
But what the hell is it? As with all other Barbie plot details, Gosling remained mum on specifics. But history has provided a template for his specific brand of Ken-ergy with characters who are confident, earnest, loyal, and a little bit ridiculous. Until Gosling cares to better clarify his Ken-ning formula, The A.V. Club has conceived a working definition of “Ken-ergy,” divided into five tenets.
The key to Ken-ergy seems to be a one-two punch of bravery and stupidity—Kens are so busy being impressed with themselves, they can’t worry about actual success rates. Envision the letter to an adoption agency Joey Tribbiani wrote on Friends, a document so deeply thesaurus-reliant Joey signs it “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani.” Picture The Deep, even before he’s recruited as the face of a cult-like church (because of course he is), gallantly embarking on an aquarium jail-break gone so wrong that you imagine that PETA considered suing The Boys just for conceiving it. The confidence to attempt it, the idiocy to botch it, and the oblivious resilience to bounce back: that’s Ken-ergy.
This aspect of Ken-ergy is exemplified by the recurring 30 Rock character Drew, played by John Hamm. Drew lives in what Liz Lemon calls “The Bubble:” because he is so handsome, everyone around him has always sung his praises instead of being honest with him. Drew marinates salmon in Gatorade; he teaches tennis lessons but can’t serve. Ultimately he chooses to leave Liz for his bubble, wobbling off into the sunset like a newborn foal on a motorcycle he can’t operate.
Who is Ken if not a trustworthy counterpart to his Barbie? The Fred to his Daphne? The Troy to his Abed? What sets Kens apart from your average James Spader-esque cruel hottie is their unwavering kindness and loyalty. Think of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Riley Finn: The only memorable things about him were that he was blonde and in the Army, but he was hands-down Buffy’s most stable, dedicated boyfriend. He would have done anything for the Slayer, even as fans across the Spike-Angel aisle agreed he was boring and not worth Buffy’s time.
The same tireless loyalty drives Stranger Things’ teen dream (and MVP) Steve Harrington. Armed with a bleary-eyed resting face and a head of hair to rival Patrick Swayze’s, Steve remains loyal to Nancy even after she dumps him—and then, he stays loyal to her little brother’s friends. He may fit in best with the middle school brigade, but Steve’s Ken-ergy nonetheless makes him a knight in shining armor.
No one experiences joy quite like a Ken. Their goofy sense of childlike wonder, buoyed by a minimal IQ, guides their lives. Think of the buffoonish glee Parks & Recreation’s Andy Dwyer finds in ground-level Indiana local government; played by a pre-MCU Chris Pratt, his tirelessly upbeat worldview made him the deadpan April Ludgate’s perfect partner. A similar dynamic flourishes between The Emperor’s New Groove’s Kronk and Yzma: only a friendly dimwit like Kronk could attend cheerfully to all of Yzma’s evil plans. Ultimately, the easy, breezy, beautiful energy of a real Ken is what keeps their fountain of cheer ever-flowing: Would That 70’s Show’s Kelso so quickly laugh at accidentally murdering his class bunny if he didn’t have the confidence of that million-dollar head of hair?
Sincerity, or in Gosling’s hands, one assumes it’s Ken-cerity. It’s Archie in Riverdale responding to a teammate who says he “dropped out in the fourth grade to run drugs to support my Nana” with: “That means you haven’t known the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of high school football.” It’s Prince Edward in Enchanted asking Giselle what “thinking” means. It’s true camp—absurd and exaggerated, but completely earnest.
But not all Kens are princes or comic-book studs. Take it from Gosling, who described his own Ken this way: “Ken’s got no money, he’s got no job, he’s got no car, he’s got no house. He’s going through some stuff.” But even at his lowest, a Ken is still Ken. When Gossip Girl’s Nate Archibald (Chase Crawford, an all-time Ken portrayer) turned to high-end prostitution while his dad evaded tax fraud, he didn’t lose sight of his Ken-ergy. He tousled up his chestnut Bieber hair, mustered up his most earnest pout, and became the youngest mayor in New York City’s history. What arc could be Ken-ner than that?
Finally, we reach perhaps the central tenet of Ken-ergy: good old-fashioned swagger. Style, confidence, and charm are one thing, but to slay is quite another. Thor had the potential for Ken-ergy when he first landed in the Midwest, but the moment in Love And Thunder where he stops a battle by doing a full split in jean shorts? Slay apotheosis. Or when Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s Josh Chan goes from just a beefed-up beach bro to the bard behind “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too?” His Ken-ergy peaks. Their slay behavior follows in the footsteps of forefathers like Brendan Fraser’s titular vine-swinging himbo in George Of The Jungle, and Hercules of Hercules, owner of one of the Top 10 chins in animation history.
Ultimately, it’s Ken-ergy that makes himbos glisten brighter, joyful stoners laugh louder, and tousled twinks brood harder. Ken-ergy is the glimmer within every Ken’s soul, reminding him he’s worthy, popular—and dammit, he looks good! Meanwhile, to be its original source and still be months from officially depicting it on screen must be tough for Gosling, but he seems certain that he and Greta Gerwig have captured Ken-ergy in a bottle. “I think a lot of Kens will feel seen when they see this,” Gosling suggested. “Gotta do it for the Kens. Nobody plays with the Kens.” Am(K)en.