What Ken’s makeover means—and doesn’t mean.
Three body types, seven skin tones, eight hair colours, nine hairstyles and “modernised” fashions, ranging from “casual business attire” to “athletic wear”. Still no penis, sadly, but you can’t have everything (and neither, it seems, can Barbie) and in every other respect, Ken, bro, you are looking… well, a bit confused perhaps, but otherwise… hot!
In June, Mattel, the forward-thinking California toy giant, announced it was relaunching its most iconic plastic arm candy, Barbie’s himbot suitor/ walker, Ken, as a series of 15 new dolls, not one of whom looks anything like the blandly handsome Old Ken you may remember from those innocent childhood days when you helped to construct soft-pornographic playroom tableaux using “naked” Barbie and her non-endowed gallant. Every one of the new dolls is Ken, apparently, because Ken is every one of us, especially those of us with cornrows.
Mattel is billing its new collection of Kens (or collection of Ken) as “the most diverse Ken lineup to date,” featuring, as it does, Kens (or, Ken) of many shapes, including a “broad” Ken, who looks like he might have overdone it on the bench presses, a hipster Ken with a checked shirt and thick-rimmed personality specs, who looks uncomfortably like Sue of Mel and Sue fame, and a Love Island Ken with a man-bun who would look right at home in the Real Madrid dressing room.
Are you old enough (Ken is) to recall the time when celebrity decorator Nicky Haslam reintroduced himself to the London party circuit with an overnight switch from dressing like the Duke of Edinburgh to dressing like Liam Gallagher? This New Ken makeover thing is a bit like that, but less endearing.
One thing for Mattel to consider next time: tattoos. How do we know Ken doesn’t have any yet? Because we took his cute little clothes off. Why? Because THAT IS WHAT YOU DO WITH KEN.
These new Kens (these new Ken) join a recently updated Barbie (more realistic tits-to-waist ratio, etc) in the brand’s Fashionista line. The fact that the overall effect is very much Man at Asos Ken rather than Classic Tailoring Ken perhaps says more about modern tastes in menswear—and modern tastes
in men—than a magazine like this one would like it to. Or maybe it doesn’t?
Esquire would like to point out that we’ve been here before. In 1981, Mattel launched the first African-american Ken, and 12 years later, Earring Magic Ken became—this is according to The Guardian—a “big seller among gay men”. Really? So, possibly New Ken is not a portent of the end of manhood as we knew it. Not that his appearance has prevented an unsightly rash of “think” pieces considering New Ken in the light of the crisis in contemporary masculinity (yawn) but really, he’s just a cheap plastic doll who can’t bend his knees or elbows. Begging the rather more urgent question: how does Ken squat?
Far be it from us at this magazine to blow our own jazz flutes (not something Ken could do; he doesn’t have a jazz flute) but we got there first with Fashionista Ken. In 2010, we asked designers to create an outfit for Ken. Burberry gave him a shearling-lined parka; Paul Smith made him a wool suit; Gucci’s trench came with a cashmere sweater; Prada accessorised a camel jacket with a camo-print leather bag.
Creepy? Maybe. But preferable to a cactus-print T-shirt and denim cut-offs. Or perhaps we’re just hopelessly Old Ken? As another unlovely icon of modern American anti-style might put it: sad.
Guys and dolls: from cornrows to cut-offs and man-buns to millennial pink, Mattel’s new Ken dolls aim to accurately reflect the man of today.