'Kenergy' is the male mental-health movement of the moment. How 'Barbie' is challenging what being a ‘real man’ means.

'Kenergy symbolizes a more fluid, less restrictive expression of masculinity.'

Kenergy is here to stay. Are young men better for it? (Credit: Getty Images)
Kenergy is here to stay. Are young men better for it? (Credit: Getty Images)

As you may have heard, the term "Kenergy," first uttered by Ryan Gosling ahead of the new Barbie movie, is taking on a life of its own.

Leading up to the film's July 21 U.S. premiere, the term became a viral sensation, though even Gosling’s co-stars didn’t know what to make of the term's rising popularity.

“I think it’s definitely a play on BDE [big d**k energy],” Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie in the film, joked with Yahoo Entertainment about the term, as costars Kate McKinnon defined it as “a recognition of the ways in which masculinity under patriarchy is limiting," Michael Cera saw it as more of a vibe, and Issa Rae called it "a whole lot of nothing."

Since seeing the movie, a growing number of men have found cathartic connection in Ken's journey, and see the term as a way to describe what healthy masculinity looks like.

Nicholas Balaisis, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who wrote about the term for Psychology Today after seeing Gosling's performance, says Kenergy is a feeling most men aspire to but are afraid to discuss.

“It is a version of masculinity that is maybe a little naive but rooted in a genuine need to connect emotionally with women and other men," he explains to Yahoo Life. "It's 'male energy' that may be a little stuck in rigid gender models, but one that is at heart sensitive and longs for real authentic interpersonal connections."

Similarly, Will Courtenay, a licensed therapist known as "The Men’s Doc," says Kenergy represents "a healthier form of manhood."

"Men who endorse more traditional, old-school ideas about masculinity have far greater physical and mental health risks than men who don’t," he tells Yahoo Life after having seen the film. "Kenergy symbolizes a more fluid, less restrictive expression of masculinity."

Sally Spencer-Thomas, a suicide-prevention advocate and co-founder of the campaign Man Therapy, notes that Kenergy is reflective of a mindset many young, progressive men share.

"It's a goal," she tells Yahoo Life of the term, adding that it is a visual representation of what happens when men break free of societal expectations and, as a result, are unafraid to express their emotions, be vulnerable with others and build richer connections with friends and romantic partners.

“We’ve come to a crossroads in many ways about flipping the script on what it means to be a man,” she says. “Older, more stoic, self-reliant generations that say, ‘Suck it up, Buttercup,’ are being challenged by younger leaders now.”

In Barbie's Barbieland, women rule, leaving Gosling's Ken as "superfluous," as Robbie's Barbie notes. But all that changes when he travels to the real world and learns about partriarchy, a concept he swiftly embraces. That shift leaves audiences to ask themselves big questions: Why has our system benefited men for so long in the first place? And how do we break free of the pressure to maintain our gendered roles?

Those questions, Spencer-Thomas says, are important for young men to ask themselves. "I am Kenough," the phrase seen on the sweatshirt Ken wears after having a self-identity breakthrough near the end of the film, is "a good mantra to accept who you are, where you are and all of who you are. Not just one aspect of your male identity,” she says.

Such themes are hitting home for a lot of men, Balaisis argues, due to Gerwig's lighthearted touch.

“The film invites us to laugh at a number of male stereotypes, such as fixations on male totems like horses or beer, the difficulty for men to form male friendships, or tendencies to ‘mansplain’ as a way to court women,” Balaisis says, noting that when he saw Barbie, "there were large, knowing laughs that accompanied these scenes, which spoke to their familiarity to the viewing audience."

Poking fun at typical male behaviors in a fun way, he adds, gives permission for men to "laugh without feeling the sting of heavy criticism."

That's why, Courtenay says, "media representation like this means something," not just through the film itself, but through Gosling's self-deprecating humor on the press tour, which has helped drive home the message that men ought not to take themselves too seriously.

“Boys and men learn a lot about how to be a man from movies, television, video games and other forms of media," he explains. "Most of those lessons are unhealthy ones. Ken challenges many traditional stereotypes about masculinity. 'Kenergy' gives men permission to do the same.”

It's all part of society's shift when it comes to manhood, he adds, noting that young men have witnessed the mental anguish older generations have taken on — due to societal expectations — and they don't want to repeat their mistakes.

“Men with more traditional or stereotypical beliefs about manhood have poorer health,” he says, "because the tools we give men in America to become ‘real men’ are largely unhealthy attitudes and behaviors."

The best thing we can do, Balaisis says, is to carry the message of Kenergy to the future. Even if the term loses its buzz, the feelings behind it shouldn't.

"Having conversations about what it means to be a man in 2023 are really important... even if it starts from being upset or angry about things they saw in Barbie," he says. "As the film shows, anger usually hides other important emotions that, while difficult to examine, can ultimately lead to better relations with self and others.”

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