Words by Jack Franks
There’s a new Barbie movie. But let’s also talk about Ken.
This plastic dude, set for his live-action debut in the shell of Ryan Gosling, is flipping the script on what it means to be a man, with many believing he’s the ultimate anti-masculinity icon.
In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s ambitiously wacky interpretation of the iconic Barbie, we’re diving deep into why Ken is the perfect example of breaking the mold of traditional masculinity and how he’s redefining what it means to be a modern man.
It may be called Barbie. It may be all about Barbie. But let’s remember Ken in this new Barbie movie.
Standing at 11.75 inches, sporting a head of perfectly formed blonde hair, and rippling with muscles stacked upon a negative 10% body fat frame, Kenneth Sean Carson represents the 21st-century male.
At the beginning of the swinging 60s, immersed in a sea of concepts and ideas, Mattel yearned to fashion a partner for Barbie who could match her charm and allure. Hours turned into days and days into nights as they passionately brainstormed, fueled by caffeine and creative enthusiasm. And then, like a burst of divine inspiration, it struck them; a dashing boyfriend.
Born in 1961, Kenneth emerged into the spotlight wearing a red and white pinstriped open shirt paired shorter than short red swim shorts, red sliders and a yellow-tinged beach towel. Flawlessly handsome and boasting a jawline that could operate as a tin opener on a part-time basis, this is the doll more commonly known as Ken.
He took his place on the shelves, poised to steal the spotlight, but where there was Ken, there was Barbie. The role of Mattel’s leggy fashion doll – played by Margot Robbie on the big screen – and her long-standing ‘situations’ with history’s most loyal partner are under the microscope more than ever in 2023.
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The last 62 years have seen Ken live in the shadow of his other half, often the subject of ridicule and tagged with an immovable stigma of anti-masculinity, waving the flag for men who hold their girls’ handbags and play the role of the carpet which piercing high heels often frequent.
This is no more evident than in the Barbie movie’s tagline, ‘She’s everything. He’s just Ken’.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride
The enigmatic protagonist in the grand play of Barbie’s world, Ken, has always played a role that seemed predestined, with only minor variations over the years.
Though there was a brief intermission in their relationship from 2004 to 2011, during which Barbie sought solace in the arms of a charming Australian surfer named Blaine, Ken has consistently held the title of Barbie’s boy toy.
He is her unwavering confidant, her enchanting arm candy, her most devoted cheerleader, and occasionally, when Barbie’s whimsical desires take hold, her virginal groom, even though Barbie had envisioned herself as a blushing bride long before Ken made his entrance onto the scene.
While Barbie’s Dream House has undergone countless transformations, Ken has remained in flux, forever residing in the shadow of his beloved companion.
Never having a place to call his own, Ken has resorted to slumbering in the cramped backseat of the sleek Ken Dream-Vette or, more likely, finding solace in the confines of a humble shoebox. It is a testament to Ken’s resilience and adaptability that he can find contentment even in the most modest dwellings.
Throughout his existence, Ken has explored an array of professions; cowboy, dentist, spy, rapper, and astronaut.
Has there ever been a more versatile figure in history?
Yet, despite his varied career choices, Ken has often found himself somewhat reliant on Barbie’s unwavering support, seemingly content in his role as the cherished companion.
While Barbie’s ambitions soared to the heights of her dreams, Ken gracefully accepted the position of the ever-faithful partner, embracing his role as the steadfast pillar of support in Barbie’s whimsical world.
In the grand tapestry of their playtime escapades, Ken remains an intriguing enigma, forever entwined in the narrative of Barbie’s story.
As the storylines unfold and the adventures continue, Ken’s character reveals a unique depth that transcends the boundaries of plastic.
He embodies loyalty, resilience, and adaptability, proving that even within the constraints of a toy world, a character can evolve and leave an indelible mark on the hearts of those who engage in the magic of make-believe.
Representing the masses
With his ever-evolving nature, Ken embarked on a transformative journey in 2017 to ensure that he truly represents the diverse tapestry of ethnicity, race, color, and background.
Drawing inspiration from the vibrant kaleidoscope of our world, Mattel took bold steps to create a range of dolls that authentically reflect the beautiful mosaic of humanity.
Dubbed the ‘Next Gen Kens’, 15 new Ken dolls with seven skin tones, three body types, nine hairstyles, and GenZ fashions, ranging from business-savvy attire to snazzy gym gear, were brought to the market.
Among them, an “original”-size Ken with cornrows, a “slim” Ken with a fade, mixed-race Ken with a man bun, Latino Kens, Asian Kens, a tan white Ken and a hip hoodie sporting Ken. Even a more rotund Ken with darker tones.
Capturing the rich hues that span the spectrum from light to dark, this comprehensive representation was done in an attempt to alter kids’ psyches and create a range that would embody the diverse array of skin colors that grace our global family.
Mattel recognized the power of redefining how little girls and the grown-ups who guide them perceive the men in their lives. In an attempt to shift the narrative and elevate him to no longer a mere accessory, Ken emerges as a captivating character in his own right, worthy of attention and admiration.
But the commitment to inclusion goes beyond skin deep. Ken’s transformation encompasses celebrating various ethnicities, races, and cultural backgrounds. Mattel has strived to capture distinctive facial features, hairstyles, and fashion choices that showcase the rich diversity of our global community.
No longer was Ken’s sole role confined to arm candy. His newly found purpose is to represent all the possible male characters conceivable in the universe.
Whether it’s the luscious curls that crown an African American Ken doll or the sleek, straight hair that adorns an Asian Ken doll, each representation is crafted with care and respect, allowing children to see themselves reflected in the world of play.
In addition to physical appearances, Ken’s wardrobe has expanded to embrace the cultural tapestry that defines us. Inspired by different regions and customs, traditional attire brings authenticity and cultural pride to the Ken doll collection.
From vibrant garments adorned with intricate patterns to accessories that pay homage to ancestral traditions, Ken’s fashion choices celebrate the heritage and backgrounds that shape our identities.
Ken is not just any ordinary figure in our pop culture tapestry; he’s a bonafide role model. Even if boys aren’t directly playing with Barbie herself, chances are they’re exploring the toy aisle right alongside her. And right there, next to Barbie, stands Ken, captivating their imaginations through commercials, shelves brimming with possibilities, and even in the cozy corners of their homes.
Think about it for a second. Boys are exposed to Ken’s suave charm as he zooms around in his Corvette, dons the prestigious robes of a lawyer, and, yes, even takes that walk down the aisle in holy matrimony. It may seem like innocent playtime, but deep down, Ken quietly imparts some powerful messages about confidence, attractiveness, and success.
Ken’s presence on the scene is more than meets the eye. He’s like a secret ally, cheering boys on as they navigate the twists and turns of life, his magnetic charisma and adventuresome spirit serving as a constant reminder that they, too, can dream big, be confident, and achieve greatness in their unique way.
So, before you flock to the cinema to watch the Barbie movie, one of the most anticipated movies 2023, let’s give it up for Ken, the unsung hero of the toy world, silently sending waves of inspiration and motivation to young minds everywhere.
With Gosling leading the real-life portrayal, there is profound hope that Ken could steal the limelight judging by early reviews.
Eliana Dockertman, writing for Time, reported: “Both Barbie and Ken go on quests of self-discovery, and that’s when things get interesting.” Still, despite being tight-lipped on Ken’s story, she admitted that “Gosling nearly steals the show.”
It may have taken 62 years, but the Kenaissance could be here.
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