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