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The Barbie World Gets New Kens

The Barbie World Gets New Kens

The day after Mattel announced that their new, more diverse line of Ken dolls would drop in July, a Brooklyn coffee shop advertised that they would be giving out one of these Ken likenesses, specifically the one sporting a “Man Bun,” for free, ahead of their release date.  These Kens are the latest installments in the Barbie Fashionistas line, a series of dolls that aim to promote different body types and racial representations. Barbie Fashionistas, as a whole, has been successful, digging Mattel out of a decline in sales that NPR reports the company has been in for some time.  I’m fascinated by Mattel’s adventures in inclusivity, so I knew I had to get my hands on this Ken.  Thanks to my Brooklyn-dwelling friend Sue (thank you, Sue!), I currently have, in my possession, a “Man Bun Ken,” and want to talk a little about him and his friends.

The Barbie World Gets New Kens
Lisa McKnight, Barbie Senior Vice President and General Manager, said in Mattel’s statement that the company is “redefining what a Barbie or Ken doll looks like to this generation.”  Indeed, that is a noble mission.  With three body types, seven skin colors, eight hair colors, nine hairstyles, and cool new clothes, the problem Mattel seems to be addressing is homogeneity.  If the goal of the new Kens, like the new Barbies, is to make them all look different, Mattel can proclaim Mission Accomplished.
The Barbie World Gets New Kens
The three body types, mirroring the three Barbie body types, do take a step in the direction of furthering awareness of difference in builds.  While on the surface the three classifications of Ken bodies sound innocuous – “slim, original, and broad” – they leave me wanting more.  Much like Barbie’s “petit, tall, original, and curvy,” the representations of Ken’s body types, based on publicity material from Mattel, look fairly similar.  When the difference between “broad” and “slim” is so minute, Mattel’s attempt at body acceptance still leaves many of us on the fringes.  Further, Ken includes the same baffling body type classification as Barbie: “original.”  To be sure, it’s clear what Mattel means: the “original” type is simply the standard Ken, just like for Barbie.  However, the placement of these other body types as, by default, “unoriginal” or “not original” feeds my belief that these classifications may not be as helpful as Mattel thinks.  By all means, increase body diversity in the dolls, but why is there a need to classify them at all?  Can’t all Ken “types” simply be labeled “Ken”?  Can’t all Barbies be Barbie?
The Barbie World Gets New Kens
By rethinking the classification system, Mattel might be able to solve another problem that is quickly multiplying across several astute blogs.  As betches.com pointed out, “[the new Kens] are fuckboys,” or, they all look like a parody (or, perhaps, facsimile) of men one might meet on the frat circuit.  There’s humor in that article’s take, but it’s founded in truth.  If one wants an honest representation of a trans man, it isn’t to be found in the new Kens.  If one wants to venture that there might be body types broader than “broad” or curvier than “curvy,” that’s sacrilege as far as the current waves of Fashionistas are concerned.  Bodies that are scarred, bodies that have aged, bodies affected by the variety of physically-presenting genetic disorders, bodies that have gone through mastectomies, bodies that are differently abled – in other words, bodies that we pass by or live in every day?  Those are not part of the Barbie World.
The Barbie World Gets New Kens
At least, not yet.  This is why I’m still pulling for Broad Ken and Petit Barbie.  They’re the start to a conversation, not the end of it.  I’m even naive enough to believe Mattel knows this.  Ruth Handler, one of Mattel’s founders, went on to design prosthetic breasts for women who have undergone mastectomies, after all.  Diverse bodies aren’t far from the companies legacy.  Therefore, the Barbie Fashionistas Kens have to be read through everyone’s lens.  Let them be fuckboys.  Let them be, as autostraddle.com delightfully indicated, lesbians.  Let them be cultural documents.
The Barbie World Gets New Kens
And let’s keep reading them.  Texts (toys included), starved of readers, become the tree that falls alone in the forest: if no one’s around, do they still make a sound?  A critically-minded consumer base is essential to the success of the Fashionistas line.  Then, when someone says, “Well, y’know, you can’t be making a Barbie with Progeria.  No one would buy that!” someone else may ask, “Why?”  Mattel can, and should, continue to mold bold new bodies, but I hope they are hiring the people who read those toys and say, “What about me?”  Mattel needs to populate its giant, plastic Barbie planet with faces that, while quite familiar on our world, stand out on Barbie’s.  If the toy company can arm those human bodies with doll sculpting knives, there is no telling what the next generation of Barbie Fashionistas might look like, or who they might stand for.
Legion contributor Jonathan Alexandratos writes plays and essays about action figures and grief.  You can find his one body type and nine different hairstyles on Twitter @jalexan.

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Jonathan Alexandratos

Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist. His most recent play, We See What Happen, was created with Nashville Repertory Theatre, and is the immigration story of Jonathan's grandmother, as told by superhero action figures. Jonathan's book of academic essays on action figures, Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, is due out in May from McFarland.

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