It’s all Blaine’s fault. If only that Australian boogie boarder hadn’t stolen Barbie’s heart, Ken might still be a man today. I’m sure you all remember the breakup. Which Breakup? The Breakup! The one that changed Ken forever.
Back in 2004, Mattel announced that Barbie was leaving Ken. She left him for Blaine, a younger, hipper, more full of life boyfriend than stodgy old Ken who initially began life as a beach boy but then, as the responsibilities came at him, settled into various careers as a hairstylist (‘91), a doctor (‘87), a pilot, and a Marine. Now she was shacking up with Blaine in what I can only imagine was his surfer apartment down under, replete with cinderblock bookcases and a waterbed. For two years after the breakup, Ken dolls were no longer produced. Then in 2006, Ken was reintroduced, but has never been the same despite Barbie taking him back in 2011. He has been, all too self-consciously, trying to imitate Blaine’s devil-may-care attitude. The thing is, it’s not working. Where Blaine was boyish, Ken is a boy. Where Blaine was adventurous, Ken is playing at adventure. Ken has, since 2006 seemed infantile and gelded.
It is in the shadow of this 2006 reinvention, which also received wide criticism, that Ken has just had a new major redesign focusing on diversity of body styles, races and fashions. Ken, who used to sport an athletic physique, now has avatars couched in broader, softer “dadbod” forms. He is also now available as a black man (he was black in earlier iterations as well) and has a whole new set of fashions such as a man bun and thick doubtlessly ironic throwback hipster glasses and flannel shirt. For about two days, coinciding with the press release, social media (yes, we’re the advertisers now and should charge companies accordingly) was replete with discussion of Ken’s new look—a look that most took to criticizing for what I can only describe as its boyishly non-threatening portrayal of a masculinity-challenged manhood.
Most of the conversation centered around how this new Ken either conveyed or was trying to inculcate a new would-be aesthetic of manhood. I’ll be honest, I fell into the detractor category. My righteous indignation flared as a visceral reaction to ManBun Ken and Rachel-Maddow Ken combined to produce laughter, anger, sadness and finally a bitter acceptance that society was doomed and the asteroid couldn’t come soon enough.
After careful consideration, however, I have concluded that while this new Ken iteration is indeed a perfect coalescence of capitalism with attempts at social engineering and do-good consumerism creating an unimaginative toy, it really isn’t something to be worried about. Further, worrying and fretting plays into the current cultural climate that has society increasingly focusing on minutiae and symptoms of social problems, such as overly emasculated dolls, in the false hope of solving broader problems and deeper social ills, such as an entire generation of emasculated men.
First, lets dispense with the idea that Ken was ever really Chuck Norris. Other than 1994-1995’s Shaving Fun Ken, Hair Mod Ken from the early 1970s and a few military versions, there was never really a time when he wasn’t a victim of the fashion trends of his day. Sure, we might remember 1980s Doctor Ken and the like (and even that version was modeled on a very thin veneer of soap opera masculinity) but perusing the Ken Collection part of the Mattel website brings to the fore a host of cringe worthy styles from the aforementioned Totally Hair Ken to Sun Sensation Ken (with fishnet mesh top) and, of course, the Earring Magic Ken.
It seems, the more we look into it, the more we realize that Ken has always had a bit of an identity crisis relative to Barbie and was never quite a man so much as a distraction or an accessory. From the get-go Barbie could be anything she wanted to be, but Ken was never quite sure of who he was. That’s because the Barbie universe is, at its heart, a girl’s universe where Ken is just a supporting character.
This is Barbie’s world we’re talking about. Despite increasing calls on companies to stop designating gender specificity for toys, everyone knows Barbie is made for girls. Origins and cultures just don’t change easily because we want them to. Barbie was made for girls and Ken was an afterthought, like her Dreamhouse or her Corvette. Sure, every now and again a boy will play with Barbie dolls, and good on him, but whether its cultural, rooted in her history, or based on some psycho evolutionarily biological reality, Barbie is seen as a girl’s toy and played with by girls more than boys.
Even if Mattel follows Hasbro’s lead and removes gender designations from its toy line (who knows? maybe they have already), It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that Barbie and all her accessories (including Ken) will still primarily be bought for, and played with, by girls. To that end, the toy itself is designed perfectly. It gives young girls a broad palette of choices with regard to imaginative role play and life direction skills. To get offended at Ken’s lack of development in that world, is to play at the kind of pedantic cultural clucking that galls us about those who criticize every bit of media as sexist because this or that protagonist happens to be male or that a woman gets fewer lines in a John Wick movie.
Ultimately the market is big enough for any type of male doll. We can lament that Ken’s style is silly and boyish, that we’d like him to project responsibility and maturity instead of whatever it is he now projects, but ultimately, the marketplace is large enough to accommodate many variables, including a Mike Rowe-Chuck Norris-Ninja doll with an AR-Screwdriver grip. The whole Ken debate really rests on how much we’re willing to trust the imagination of the kids playing with the toys. Some will imagine full actuated lives for Ken while others will relegate him to the accessory role his creators had in mind for him.
If our notions of masculinity and femininity are so fragile that a toy can define or threaten to destroy them, maybe there’s a deeper problem than the particulars of any specific toy. Maybe part of the problem is we’re so focused on toys that we don’t focus on how real-life adults act.
Instead of looking at toys as the means of promoting social ideals and then blaming them for various social ills, we may want to look to parents and other adults in the lives of children to teach them the proper scope of concepts like masculinity and femininity and how to balance professional and personal life. The new Ken dolls may be expressions of what adults think kids should see as masculinity and femininity, but thankfully not necessarily indicative, at all, of what kids will actually imagine when playing with them.
If we’re going to lament anything, it should be that the release of a toy can cause an uproar, irrespective how slight, among adults . . . and that may mean man-bun Ken, with his childish never-grow-up demeanor is less a social fiction than we thought.