From the waiting area, I am escorted to a blazing pink conference room, where I learn that, as with Barbie’s religion, the offcial company position is that Ken has no age—and also that he is roughly 18, even though he has held many adult jobs.
These “play patterns” often take the form of standard serial-killer-type behavior: stripping Barbie and Ken naked, styling and re-styling Barbie’s hair.
Storytelling, in which the dolls are used to act out scenarios, is the most popular. Although he was invented specifically as a “boyfriend” doll for Barbie (herself modeled after a sexy figurine marketed to German adults in the 1950s), Ken’s job description in 2017 has broadened tremendously: His purpose now is to represent all the possible male characters conceivable in the universe.“When kids are really young,” says Shore—in Barbie terms, really young means about 3 years old—“a lot of [storytelling] is about understanding the world around them.
The decision to give him some depth marks a new chapter for men, and dolls who are men. “We want to make sure Ken reflects a friendly view of the world,” says Shore.)One way to make Ken more of a real-live man, Mattel decided, is to put him through a dramatic physical transformation. Think of this strategy as the ice-cream-ization of Barbie.
From this day forward, Ken doesn’t always have to look like the most basic frat bro ever to get a B- in econ. And so, on the pink stiletto heels of last year’s announcement that Barbie would henceforth be available in taller, shorter, and, most sensationally, curvier versions, the company is adding two new Ken shapes to its roster and manufacturing them in a larger array of skin shades and hairstyles. There are an infinite number of flavors, but we refer to them all by the same general name; “ice cream” isn’t necessarily vanilla—and neither is Barbie’s boyfriend.
Boys—even boys who like Barbie—don’t care about him.“In the past,” says Michael Shore, “Ken was really viewed as more of an accessory in Barbie’s world, to support the narrative of whatever was happening with the girls.” Ken was arm candy, a proponent of Barbie’s endeavors, a complement at a ratio of about 1:7.
Or at least that’s how sales worked over the years—kids own one Ken for every seven Barbies.
That’s because Ken is the carefully calibrated ideal complement to Barbie—a blank, smiling man who does not threaten the stardom of the most intelligent, talented, rappin’ rockin’ princess astronaut in all of Malibu.
Ken is “nice,” the members of the Barbie team will tell me over and over when I ask them to describe a doll’s personality: “a nice guy”; “a solid dude”; and, most damningly: “I picture him kind of Ryan Seacrest-y.”Well, not anymore. A Ken who is…“broad.”This branding is a radical attempt to alter kids’ psyches.
He can be complicated, mysterious—maybe even vegan. There will be an “original”-size Ken with cornrows. It’s an intriguing idea, nestled in a snake pit of complications.
What about the modern man necessitates a Ken do-over? How does a corporation select the shades of brown it will use to represent black people? Mattel was willing to entertain my questions, asked with a Barbie’s confidence, but it wasn’t about to send me unreleased dolls in the mail.
Starting now, Mattel is re-imagining the all-American guy. Mattel has spent the better part of six decades teaching children that Barbie and Ken are white; that Barbie and Ken are sculpted like Hellenistic statues, only pornier, despite lacking genitals; that Barbie and Ken have friends—that some of their best imaginary friends are black—but that at the end of the day those friends are not quite A-list superstars like Barbie and Ken. Millennial moms declared Barbie out of sync with their values.