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Barbie, The Royal Hotel, Fair Play, Cat Person, How to Have Sex: post #MeToo, directors explored toxic masculinity in every imaginable genre – with surprising results.

When the news broke in 2020 that a film about Barbie dolls was to be co-written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the maker of Lady Bird and Little Women, Gerwig's fans guessed that she would comment on the consumerism and the body-consciousness that the dolls encouraged. And that's what she did. But one of the many surprises offered by Barbie was that both of those themes were mentioned only in passing. The main concern of the highest grossing film of 2023 was how badly men behave towards women.

One man in particular. The ingratiating Ken (Ryan Gosling) seems like a nice guy at first, but when Barbie (Margot Robbie) refuses to have a romantic relationship with him, mainly because she doesn't know what a romantic relationship is, he takes his manic revenge. He moves into Barbie's Dreamhouse, fits it with saloon doors, and renames it his "mojo dojo casa house". He and his fellow Kens conspire to brainwash all of the Barbies into becoming subservient bimbos, and they plan to rewrite Barbie Land's constitution to grant themselves ultimate power. Worst of all, Ken forces Barbie to listen to him playing Push by Matchbox Twenty on the acoustic guitar for four hours straight. Never before had a Hollywood blockbuster parodied the fragile male ego with such lethal accuracy.

In 2023, it became clear that filmmakers everywhere were fascinated and repulsed by condescending, predatory, petty-minded men

But if Gerwig's choice of angle was wonderfully bold and unexpected, it wasn't unique. As 2023 rolled on, it became clear that filmmakers everywhere were fascinated and repulsed by condescending, predatory, petty-minded men. In cinema, this was the year of the bad boyfriend.

In one single week in October, US audiences could choose between three new films on the subject: Cat Person, Fair Play and The Royal Hotel. Susanna Fogel's Cat Person, adapted from the viral New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian, starred Emilia Jones as a student who flirts with a thirtysomething man, Nicholas Braun, only to discover that he is nowhere near as charming in person as he is when he's texting. He makes her uncomfortable, but she also feels that she should go along with whatever he wants, up to and including seeing The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema where she works. And when she rejects him, he responds in a Ken-ish manner, by sending her abusive texts.

In Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont, a newly engaged couple played by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich work for the same Wall Street investment firm. When she gets the promotion that he was hoping for, he claims to be pleased for her, but he soon spirals down into a jealous rage. And in Kitty Green's The Royal Hotel, Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick play two US backpackers who get a summer job as bartenders in an Australian outback pub. "You're going to have to be okay with a little male attention," they're warned. What that means is that they have to be okay with misogynistic abuse being dismissed as banter, and with lecherous men stumbling into their rooms after closing time.

In 2019, The Royal Hotel's director and star, Green and Garner, worked together on The Assistant, in which Garner played a production company assistant with a Harvey Weinstein-alike boss. Back then, films related to the issues raised by the #MeToo movement were still a rarity, but by this year, enough time had passed for the industry to progress, and for directors to examine toxic masculinity in every imaginable genre.

Almost none of the men in these films are aware that they are doing anything wrong

Anatomy of a Fall, the winner of the Palme d'Or at May's Cannes Film Festival, is a courtroom drama combined with a murder mystery, but it's also a portrait of a marriage that crumbles because the husband is envious of his wife's success. Molly Manning Walker's brilliant debut, How to Have Sex, is a British coming-of-age drama in which a teenage schoolgirl (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is coerced into losing her virginity to an obnoxious boy while on holiday in Greece. And Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, a biopic of Priscilla and Elvis Presley, is the story of a young girl being dominated by a powerful older man.

'More pathetic than menacing'

Even Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things follows the pattern. The only film in this article not to be directed by a woman, it's a wild fantasy set in Victorian Europe, and yet it has a lot in common with Barbie. The heroines of both films have no knowledge of the real world (in the case of Poor Things, Emma Stone's character has had her adult brain replaced by a child's), and this ignorance enables them, initially, to stride through it with naive confidence. But both women's paths are blocked by men who are desperate to control them, and enraged when they are not allowed to.

It would have been easy for these films to present the male aggressors as monsters. After all, the last time Hollywood was so invested in the battle of the sexes, it was in neo-noir erotic thrillers such as Body Heat, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct – and they tended to portray women as psychopathic killers. But this year's filmmakers have opted for a more sympathetic and subtle approach. In Priscilla, Elvis can be courteous and kind; in Barbie, Ken is essentially a puppy dog; most of the men in Poor Things and How to Have Sex are more pathetic than menacing; The Royal Hotel, Cat Person and Fair Play don't turn into frenzied thrillers until their final minutes. Almost none of the men in these films are aware that they are doing anything wrong.

Why the restraint? One reason is that the filmmakers want to show that sexual harassment and coercive behaviour isn't committed by a few bad apples. It isn't the preserve of easily identifiable brutes. Instead, it is so common that men may not even notice it, and women may be encouraged not to. The Royal Hotel, for instance, always seems to be building up to a violent sexual assault, but the film's writer-director doesn't go down that sensationalist road. As Kitty Green explained on the Script Apart podcast, "If they had've raped someone, everyone [watching] could have said, 'Oh, that's not us, we would never rape someone.' But if [the men] are just telling jokes and calling [the women] names and snickering at them, I think a lot of people have done that when they've been a little too drunk, and a lot of people then have to look at their own behaviour and go, 'Gosh, maybe I shouldn't have done X, you know.' I think that's the conversation I wanted to have."

There's a nuance and maturity to these films that you didn't get when Michael Douglas was being threatened by Glenn Close and Sharon Stone in the 1980s and 1990s. They even dare to show the female characters behaving irresponsibly and sometimes abhorrently, and Barbie herself ends up apologising to Ken for hurting his feelings. The point of this even-handedness is not that the men should be let off the hook: they all get the comeuppance they deserve. The point seems to be that the assumptions and conventions of a male-dominated society can push women, as well as men, towards making harmful decisions, whether that's exemplified by the enforced hedonism in How to Have Sex and The Royal Hotel or by the macho corporate culture in Fair Play.

The villain in each of the year's most insightful films, then, wasn't an individual man. The villain was the patriarchy itself – the very system that enchanted Ken when he crossed over from Barbie Land to reality. It's not likely that many people will reject that system as easily as Ken does, but maybe we can all learn from his words of wisdom: "To be honest, when I found out that the patriarchy wasn't about horses, I lost interest, anyway."