Happy 50th, Ken: May you freak us out for years to come
His muscles are permanently flexed, his fashions impeccably zhooshed and his fringe swing puts Justin Bieber’s to shame.
He is Ken doll and he has just celebrated 50 years of hyper – yet exquisitely ambiguous – masculinity.
To mark such a momentous jubilee, this column will now tackle the big questions about Barbie’s tackle-less escort. Big questions such as:
Are Ken and Free Moving Curtis more than just good friends? Is it true his man-bulge was Bobbitt-ed due to budgetary restraints? And why are he and Barbie crucibles for so much cultural anxiety, anyway?
The answers include: we can only hope; ka-ching!; and let’s start at the very beginning.
Ken was born in 1961 which makes him either an elderly Gen X-er or a really sprightly boomer, depending on how you count. (And while we’re on the subject of reductive, ageist tags, it’s worth noting that, at two years his senior, Barbie is a cougar by sensitive Hollywood standards.)
Collectors’ web sites show photos of the Ken prototype sporting snazzy flocked hair, and wearing solid red knit shorts, a striped cloth jacket and cork sandals. There was also a yellow towel in case he wanted to, you know, do manly towel stuff.
In her book Barbie’s Queer Accessories, Erica Rand notes that Mattel created this fantasy boyfriend in an attempt to expand “Barbie’s possibilities toward the infinite” – in other words, to help her get a life beyond consumer items and leisurewear.
Given that many Christian parents suspected The Big B was a Trojan clotheshorse for lasciviousness, it was critical that Ken’s key attributes include boyishness and asexuality.
The penis issue also posed a serious dilemma.
“If his genitalia were included, some mothers would object,” former Mattel ad man Cy Schneider says in Rand’s book. “[But] if his genitalia were omitted, would he look like some wounded Hemingway hero?”
The solution was to have Ken moulded in a permanent set of jockey shorts with a lump in the appropriate spot, thus giving an approximation of anatomical correctness – the equivalent of Barbie’s smooth, nipple-less boobs.
Sadly, Ken’s groin suffered a fatal reconceptualisation when Mattel sent the test model to Japan for manufacturing. A supervising engineer decided that eliminating his modesty shorts would make him easier to produce, and that excising his genitals would cut a cent-and-a-half off the cost of production.
Ken was brought into a world a neuter. But, despite Mattel’s initial angst, he didn’t end up causing cataclysmic kinder castration complexes.
“There was a lesson in this for all of us,” Schneider says. “Do not substitute your own tastes, thoughts, or imagination for a child’s.”
While Ken’s boy-next-door lumplessness has remained unchanged over the decades, his fashions, like Barbie’s, have had ADD.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the arrival of wildly attired and resonantly-named editions such Bendable Leg Ken, Live Action Ken, Sun Set Malibu Ken, Busy Talking Ken and Walk Lively Ken.
Also snazzy was Mod Hair Ken from 1973 whose primary selling point was that his appearance could be altered to match his moods. (The catch was that these moods could only revolve around the styling of his rooted hair, and the subtraction or addition of detachable sideburns, moustaches and beards.)
Contemporary versions of the bicep-ed bombshell boast similar girl-on-boy grooming opportunities. Shaving Fun Ken Doll, for instance, invites the over-three-year-old she-demographic to help Ken address his five o’clock shadow before a big date with Barbie.
There’s also Sweet Talking Ken Doll who can record phrases of up to five seconds and speak them back in three pitches.
“He’s the ultimate boyfriend for every occasion,” Mattel gushes of this little number. “Why? Because this handsome Ken doll says whatever you want him to say!”
This vision of boyfriend as malleable, acquiescent ornament raises questions about whether Ken may pose as big a threat to boys’ psyches as his female counterpart supposedly does to girls’.
Barbie, as all good feminists know, is evil because she represents the ideology of the patriarchy and capitalism; teaching girl children they can never be too rich, too thin or too Brazilian-ed.
But Ken hardly epitomises empowerment, either. In many ways, Barbie’s plus-one is just another, chuck-outable accessory. (If he seems steady in his manhood, it’s probably only because he doesn’t have articulated knee joints.)
The complexities of the celebrity vinyl couple have prompted a plethora of obscure academic theses which use the pair as a departure point for deep cultural and neuro-psycho analyses.
Consider “Why Barbie feels heavier than Ken: The influence of size-based expectancies and social cues on the illusory perception of weight”.
In this 2008 article from the journal Cognition, The Netherlands’ Anton J M Dijker pays 82 undergraduate students to estimate the size, strength and weight of a six figures including an Obi-Wan Kenobi doll with a Ken head (aka Old Ken).
He concludes that a size-weight illusion or SWI is demonstrated by the fact that smaller objects tend to feel heavier than larger ones, thus clarifying the nature of embodied, internal sensory-motor representations of physical and social properties.
Phew. Glad we got that one sorted.
In the meantime, the non-neuroscience world is aflame with less complicated news in the form of a rumoured reunion between Ken and his eternally perky she-twin.
Mattel had the pair split in 2004 after 43 years of what many suspected was a marriage of convenience. Now, a company web site is inviting fans to vote on whether or not Barbie should take Ken back.
At barbieandken.com, the Love-o-Meter arrow is currently swinging between “It’s Complicated” and “Give Him a Chance”, while Mattel has also organised for the pair to tweet and Facebook madly on the theme.
The toy giant’s blatant attempt to exploit the powers of social networking and camp-er-nomics is pretty nauseating. But the delighted response of much of the blogosphere suggests the self-consciously cheesy marketing campaign is a hit.
Like nostalgia, postmodern kitsch isn’t what it used to be.
In the meantime, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our cultural fixation with Ken is a meta version of the sweet-talking design in that what “says” isn’t built-in but something we determine and/or project onto him ourselves.
Rorschach Inkblot Ken may not have quite the same ring as classic tags such as Cool Times Ken from 1988, Stars & Stripes Rendezvous with Destiny Army Ken from 1992, or the gay-tastic Earring Magic Ken from 1993, but it does seem like an apt entry for 2011.
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