Toy Boy

What Ken’s makeover means—and doesn’t mean.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - Words by ALEX BILMES

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.

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