Ken's sad and lonely life in Barbie's shadow.
Those synthetics—the body is currently acrylonitrile butadiene styrene—have taken on many shapes over the years. Ken started out as lean and elegant and upper-class swell, befitting the "Ivy stripes" and "Ivy colors" mentioned in ad copy for his early outfits. According to the amazacrazily comprehensive collector's site Keeping Ken—which is not safe to click on if you don't want to have your mind blown—Mattel overhauled his body mold in the late '60s so that he could "reflect the rugged masculinity" of the times. These days, he is pretty cut. When my friend Marion, who is 3½, heard I was working on this piece, she voiced concern that I take notice of "his mighty arms." In the clothes he has worn upon that body, Ken has emerged as the foremost fashion victim of the postwar era, taking turns as a mod, a rocker, a jazzbo, a disco king, etc., ad nauseum, all in the name of expressing his devotion to Barbie by coordinating with her. She is a slave to fashion, and he is a slave to her. Therefore, when she appeared in the early '90s as Earring Magic Barbie, he became the gay-iconic Earring Magic Ken.
There have been black Kens and Latin Kens, Kens with mustaches and Kens with voice boxes who said things like "I'll get the food for the party!" and "What are you doing next weekend?" The only part of his anatomy that hasn't changed is the one that's never been there. Handler and the other women at Mattel were less sheepish than their male colleagues about giving Ken a pronounced "bump" at the crotch, but none of them ever considered endowing him correctly. Attending to a beauty beyond Cleopatra, he is beyond a eunuch. To compensate for his absent package, his outfits have been packaged with all manner of deputized phalli—a drum major's baton here, a long-barreled rifle there. "The cruelest comment on his genital deficiency … came in 1964," writes Lord, "with 'Cheerful Chef,' a backyard barbecue costume that included a long fork skewering a pink plastic weenie."
But even with his manhood, Ken wouldn't quite be a man. When I took my Beach Party Ken over to Marion's place for a play date, I discovered that she has six Barbies—none of them bought by ambivalent Mommy—attending to the needs of her one hapless Ken. Marion and her mother evolved a game in which two evil sisters (represented by Cruella de Vil and the witch from Sleeping Beauty) repeatedly abducted the two Kens and tied them up in their lair, where they waited powerlessly for a Barbie to come to the rescue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such narratives are common in the nursery, the demigoddess controlling the drone. One of Mattel's original slogans for Ken was, "He's a doll!" But really, he's just Barbie's plaything.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.