‘ Ken some­times wor­ries that his ex­is­tence is a twisted joke. A lit­tle girl’s re­venge on the pa­tri­archy’

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS - JENNIFER O’CON­NELL

Ken Car­son is hav­ing a mini- midlife cri­sis. He’s 56 years old, and he’s started wear­ing his hair in a man bun which, he thinks, looks hot with his fake tan and ripped- denim board shorts. Ken re­cently de­cided he needed to be more hip. He’s al­ways been quite right- on, even if not every­one knew that about him. To his cha­grin, a lot of peo­ple dis­miss him as a bit of arm candy in an end­less pro­ces­sion of per­fectly tai­lored clothes of un­matched qual­ity. But there’s a lot more to him than that. For a brief time around 1993, Ken wore a pur­ple shell­suit, a body­wave and an ear­ring, and lots of peo­ple as­sumed he was gay. He was com­pletely fine with that. Ken is happy to be who­ever you want him to be.

He gave up smok­ing ages ago: th­ese days he vapes. He has a T- shirt that says “This is what a fem­i­nist looks like” and he re­ally does be­lieve he’s a fem­i­nist, most of the time. He’s com­fort­able be­ing the lesser earner in his re­la­tion­ship. His girl­friend is older and more suc­cess­ful than him – which wouldn’t be that dif­fi­cult be­cause, well, he’s never re­ally had what you might call a ca­reer.

Deep down, though, he has been hav­ing a few un­set­tling pri­vate thoughts that he would never ad­mit to her. They’ve been to­gether a long time, back since he was a weedy frat boy in ca­sual swimwear, and years ago, he learned not to rock the hot pink speed­boat. They broke up in 2004, around the time she dis­cov­ered fem­i­nism, and didn’t get back to­gether un­til 2011. He doesn’t want to go back to that aw­ful wilder­ness again.

But the truth is that when he looks at his own life, he sees a long his­tory of op­pres­sion and iso­la­tion. He’s un­der- rep­re­sented in the play­room by a mar­gin of about seven to one. When he looks at the wider world, which he doesn’t do too of­ten, be­cause wor­ry­ing gives you wrin­kles, he’s con­cerned that gen­der quo­tas will mean women get­ting elected on gen­der in­stead of on merit. He just wants the best politi­cians to rep­re­sent him. He still thinks Bernie San­ders would have won, by the way.

Don’t tell his girl­friend, but Ken couldn’t quite bring him­self to vote for Clin­ton. So blonde, so bossy, so power- hun­gry. She re­minded him of some­one, but he couldn’t quite put his fin­ger on it.

His girl­friend – a some­time as­tro­physi­cist, univer­sity pro­fes­sor, vet, sur­geon and bas­ket­ball player, with a body that is lit­er­ally in­cred­i­ble – pointed out to him that men have al­ways cruised into power on the backs of the un­of­fi­cial quo­tas that op­er­ate in their favour. To Ken’s pri­vate hor­ror, she had de­signs on stand­ing for of­fice her­self at one time, but thank­fully she de­cided to em­bark on a de­gree in palaeon­tol­ogy in­stead.

When he told her re­cently that he didn’t care if he was rep­re­sented by men or women, that merit was what mat­tered, she snapped back that there were loads of medi­ocre men in po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity, but no­body ever seems to worry about “get­ting the best” un­til they start talk­ing about women. “Totes babe,” he agreed but he didn’t com­pletely un­der­stand what she meant. She’s a bit smarter than he is, his Bar­bie. Man Bun Ken is one of sev­eral new looks Ken is try­ing out. He’s also been ex­per­i­ment­ing with show­cas­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of his cul­tural and eth­nic back­ground. Some­times, he puts on a few pounds. Then Bar­bie’s fans call him “Dad­bod Ken”, which he finds hurt­ful, un­til he re­minds him­self that women in the pub­lic eye put up with their bod­ies be­ing scru­ti­nised con­stantly. Other times, he slims down and goes blonde. “Kush­ner Ken” is how he thinks of that look.

Bar­bie’s peo­ple, Mat­tel, look after his im­age. They re­cently an­nounced he’d be al­ter­nat­ing be­tween 15 new looks, in­clud­ing seven skin tones, nine hair­styles and three body styles, in an ef­fort to be­come more mod­ern and rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

It was a bit over­whelm­ing, and a lot of men wouldn’t be able for that kind of pres­sure, but Ken is okay with it, be­cause he be­lieves iden­tity is fluid. He will be who­ever you – or your daugh­ter – want him to be. He is a blank can­vas, a re­cep­ta­cle for the de­sires and fan­tasies of oth­ers – lit­tle girls, pri­mar­ily.

His whole pur­pose is to blend in, to be an un­threat­en­ing, beau­ti­ful eu­nuch with per­fect ve­neers. Some­times, of­ten when he’s be­ing stripped naked or made to un­dergo a sham wed­ding to Upsy Daisy or en­gaged in head- to- head com­bat with one of the Bratz, he has an un­easy feel­ing his ex­is­tence is a bit of a twisted joke; a lit­tle girl’s re­venge on the pa­tri­ar­chal world into which she’s about to emerge. In his dark­est mo­ments, he ad­mits to him­self that boys – even boys who like Bar­bie – don’t care about him, and girls see him only as a nar­ra­tive de­vice, a ci­pher for Bar­bie’s ad­ven­tures. At those mo­ments, he feels like tak­ing a scis­sors to his fem­i­nism T- shirt.

But then some­one hands him a shiny new man­bag or a cool pair of shades and he for­gets all about it.

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