Not Just a Boy Toy

You may have seen him a department store. He wears an over-sized plaid shirt, black jeans, Doc Martens, and dark, wrap-around shades. He's Totally Cool Ken, and he's ready to take in a movie with his long-time girlfriend, Barbie. The shopping bag at his feet holds the surprise gift he's bought her, just because.He's the slim, smooth-skinned, steely-eyed essence of young, All-American manhood. But if you look closer, you'll notice that the double latte at his elbow is untouched, while the smile on his face seems frozen, as if holding back an angst that's been building inside him for years. Picking up a pen in his stiff fingers, he writes: Dear Lola, For the last 37 years, I've been dating the girl of my dreams. But whenever we try to consummate our romance, a barrier comes between us. Could it be our subconscious fear of commitment, or is it the flesh-toned, plastic undies that were permanently molded to our bodies when we rolled off our assembly lines?Poor Ken. He's a doll. A prince. A devoted friend who wants nothing more from life than to frolic on a sunny beach or spin his beloved across a gleaming ballroom. But where does it get him? And the intransigence of his underpants is just one of his problems. While Barbie basks in her role as cultural icon, an image of ideal femininity that for the last four decades has shaped little girls' dreams, Ken is at best ignored, and at worst, dismembered.Callie Krumholz, who's just turning 11, has out-grown her Barbies. But she still chuckles over the Ken doll who lost his leg when she used him as a gavel in a game of courtroom. And she sneers at the memory of the passive persona the boy doll displayed compared to his curvaceous counterpart. "He'd give Barbie a ride when she wanted to go somewhere," the Burlington fifth-grader remembers. "He was a prop to hold things up. Just another thing to dress."Sarah Strohmeyer, a reporter at the Valley News and author of the 1997 parody book, Barbie Unbound, describes how she used to entertain her four-year-old with schticks based on Ken's stupidity. "Ken would put the bananas in the toaster and she'd laugh and laugh," the author recalls. "I think my husband thought, what's the message we're giving here?" Her answer: "You're going to be strong and the guys in your life will just be another set of accessories."Even at Mattel, Ken's mothership, the attitude towards the doll is tellingly dismissive. "If you watch little girls playing with them, you'll see that Barbie is in charge and Barbie drives the car," reflects the company's director of marketing communications, who is apted named Lisa McKendall. "Barbie tells Ken what he should wear. It's an empowering thing for girls."According to Barbie's official Web site, www.barbie.com, Ken's last name is Carson. Read between the lines of his official resume, and it's clear that the doll's troubles reach back to 1961, the year he was introduced. To begin with, Ken Carson didn't arrive on the scene until two years after the debut of Barbie Millicent Roberts, aka Barbie. Clearly, in this case, the male was an afterthought. But that's not all. It's fairly well-known that Barbie was named for the daughter of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliott Handler. What fewer people realize is that Ken is named for the Handlers' son. With this odor of incest hanging over the molded couple, it's probably just as well that neither possesses the capacity to drop trou.The original Ken sported a spiffy tux, suitable for taking Barbie on a classy date. Unfortunately, however, the perfect escort had a devastating defect. Ken's flocked fiber crew-cut readily rubbed off, making him look as if he'd either undergone a recent round of chemotherapy or was a lot older than the nubile young date at his side.After his rough beginnings, things started to look up for Ken. His flocked locks were replaced with rooted flax or molded plastic coifs. As more and more models hit the marketplace, Ken's interests become increasingly multifaceted. And each new avocation was accompanied by another appropriate outfit. In 1962, Tennis Anyone? Ken learned that "love" can have more than one meaning. Touch Down Ken went all the way in 1963. Fountain Boy Ken, released in 1964, wore a smart white smock and came equipped with a tray of tempting milkshakes in a choice of strawberry or chocolate. And in 1966, Business Appointment Ken explored the ins and outs of office romance with the ever-lovely Career Girl Barbie.For the next 20 years, whatever outing Barbie craved, Ken proved a willing - and suitably attired - companion. Though his wardrobe reflected changing styles in fashion, he retained the same basic set of personal attributes. As Sun Gold Malibu Ken, Tropical Ken, California Dream Ken, and Wet and Wild Ken, he was definitely into the beach scene. One look at Great Shape Ken, Roller Skating Ken, or All Star Marathon Ken with his chin-length hair, and you knew that he treated his body as a temple.Mod Hair Ken from 1973, blow-dried, shag-haired, Hot Rockin' Ken from 1986, and 1989's Dance Club Ken proved that the man was hip. As 1964's Goin' Hunting Ken, Horse Lovin' Ken in 1982, and 1988's Animal Lovin' Ken - carrying his own cuddly chimp - he was clearly the outdoors type. And generous? Perfume Giving Ken included a small bottle of scent. Pearl Beach Ken bears a child-fitting ring that changes color in warm water. And Prince Ken, in his flashy gold thigh-highs, red doublet and sweeping blue and gold cape, comes with a sack of royal jewels, token of his true love for Rapunzel Barbie.Put it all together, and he was one hell of a guy.Despite Ken's apparent perfection and steadfast loyalty, Barbie wasn't content with her role as steady girlfriend. And neither was Mattel. Faced with the increasing mainstreaming of feminist ideals and stung by accusations that she was, of all things, a negative role model for her impressionable female fans, Barbie began to expand her horizons sometime in the early 1980s. The plastic girl who'd always just wanted to have fun suddenly developed an interest in dentistry. She joined each branch of the armed forces. She opened a petting zoo. She took up gymnastics and NASCAR racing. She reinvented herself as a rock star and a Boston Celtic, and she became the Got Milk? campaign's best endowed spokesdoll.But Ken? Throughout all Barbie's changes, he remained her faithful escort, when she was willing to have him. Lately, though, Ken is discovering his own needs matter, too. Stood-up Ken hasn't been content to just sit back and wait for Paleontologist Barbie to bring home a dinosaur bone. Left to his own devices, he's been getting in touch with his softer side, as well as developing an avid interest in a tow-headed toddler named Little Tommy. As Big Brother Ken, he slips on a baby carrier, packs a supply of diapers, pacifiers, bottles and rattles, and happily romps with the wee lad. As Dr. Ken, he buttons up his white coat, slips on his stethoscope, and cajoles Little Tommy onto his examining table. And as Father Ken, with Little Tommy as his altar boyÉsorry, just kidding.Big Brother Ken is "really great because you don't often see a male character in a nurturing role," gushes Mattel spokeswoman McKendall. "That's another really great message for girls to get." Until four years ago, she continues, Ken dolls were only sold as accessories to different lines of Barbies. But with the new "stand-alone" models, backed by their own commercial segments, the old boy is finally "coming into his own," she says.And come into his own he has. Despite Mattel's ongoing efforts to control its plastic offspring, the fact is that Ken, like Barbie, has developed a life of his own. Not long ago, no doubt inspired by his early experiments in the Krumholz household, Ken surfaced on San Francisco's Castro Street repackaged as Cross-Dressing Ken. McKendall's comment? "Sounds like product-tampering to me."Last year, Ken and Barbie made an unauthorized appearance in "Barbie Girl." The kitsch dance hit by the Swedish pop group Aqua features a startlingly deep-voiced Ken urging, "Come on Barbie, let's go party." Mattel sued the band for infringement of copyright. "We're still in legal wrangling, so I can't comment," says McKendall.And he's broken out all over the place between the pages of Barbie Unbound. Strohmeyer describes her book this way: "We took Barbie and placed her in 40 unconventional roles: Sylvia Plath Barbie has her head in the oven. Barbie of Arc is tied to a stake. Then we took photos."Though Barbie is, of course, the dominant player in Strohmeyer's photos, Ken also plays many significant, and often surprising, roles. In Welfare Queen Barbie, Ken shows up as someone suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder who spends most of his time making annoyance calls to utility companies. As J. Edgar Ken, he lounges on a couch in a blue lam* outfit with heels and an assortment of FBI paraphenalia. In a spread entitled, "Let's Go Navy: Barbie gets her tail hooked," Barbie gives Ken a good spanking. Strohmeyer has yet to hear from Mattel. She says she's waiting to see how the company reacts to a Cambridge theater group that's staging a live version of Unbound this December.The possibility that Ken will finally succeed in constructing an identity independent of Barbie raises exciting prospects for his future. Could Ken make friends - quietly, on his own terms - with flesh-and-blood boys? Absolutely not, according to the folks at Mattel.McKendall describes Ken's target market as "little girls, aged three to 12. The toy is not targeted for boys. It's still a product marketed for girls. No boys have Kens," she confidently asserts.This message has certainly come home to the vast majority of males. If a boy accuses another boy of liking Ken dolls or Barbies, explains one young man who insisted on anonymity, it's "the lowest of the low." But this attitude is silly, the child continues, because Ken isn't really all that different from the toys boys are supposed to play with. In fact, he acknowledges, he likes Ken quite a bit. "They're sort of like Legos, but more fun because everything's already built and there are nicer cars," he says. "The stuff is cool. Give Ken his own TV show and place a gun in his hands, and boys would play with him."

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