Ken's sad and lonely life in Barbie's shadow.

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March 9 2009 6:53 AM

Boy Toy

Ken's sad and lonely life in Barbie's shadow.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The golden jubilee of a diamond-bright icon is upon us as the Barbie doll, introduced at the American International Toy Fair of 1959, passes a milestone on March 9. This presents an occasion to praise her timeless charms, to damn her anti-feminism, and, for those wired for negative capability, to hold both ideas in mind. Of the season's two books on the subject, Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her is the more sensible affair. Author Robin Gerber details the career of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler—who named her celebrated toy after her only daughter—with the precision of a business-school case study. Rather less judicious, Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel, eructed by renowned sleaze broker Jerry Oppenheimer, holds that Barbie's true creator was Mattel research-and-design executive Jack Ryan, who had a thing for dames of a Barbie-esque silhouette, one of whom appears, in the book's first sentence, as his accomplice in "yet another evening of compulsive sex."

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Indeed, beyond matters of basic fact, the only quality that the two new Barbiographies share is the short shrift each gives the doll's love interest. Such is the eternal lot of unfortunate Ken Carson, Barbie's long-term beau and ever-ready escort. If history is any guide, Ken—an accessory, an ornament, a cold planet orbiting a hyper-giant star—will not quite be a VIP at this 50th-birthday gala. But his role, however minor, will be critical: Barbie wouldn't be Barbie if she didn't have a steady date.

Watch a Slate V history of the Barbie television commercial:

In the late 1950s, Handler observed her daughter using paper dolls to imagine adult lives and saw an opportunity to "three-dimensionalize" the play pattern. Though Mattel modeled Barbie's physique on that of a German doll with a gold-digger Weltanschauung, she herself entered life as an independent woman. As noted in the definitive critical text on the subject, M.G. Lord's Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Mattel's ad agency introduced the plastic figurine as a flesh-and-blood mannequin: "She was a teenage fashion model, and the world was her runway." Barbie never demanded a boyfriend, but the fantasies of the little girls consumed with her did. Ken made the scene in 1961, his namesake being Handler's son.

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"It all started at the dance," according to the myth marketed by the TV commercial announcing Ken's debut. Here was ball-gowned Barbie swiveling her head toward a young man in a shawl-collar evening suit. The ad continues, "Somehow she knew that she and Ken would be going together." Perhaps what tipped her off was the expression on his blandly handsome face, which splits the difference between eager attentiveness and submissive captivation. After the new couple models some outfits for genteel picnics, polite frat parties, and afternoons of beach-blanket bingo, the commercial climaxes with Ken back in his tux and Barbie in a bridal gown. It's left to your imagination whether they've just turned to face the officiant or have just now tied the knot, but for sure they don't get a honeymoon. Is there any corner of the Barbie universe—among all the board games and sticker books and authorized novels—where the two live as man and wife? Though anything is possible at playtime, the point of Barbie's having Ken around is not for her to marry him but for her to have the option. It is enough for him to be marriageable. Today, the most popular Ken model—one of the few sold in stores by its lonesome—is the Wedding Day Sparkle Groom Ken. Impossibly patient and unfailingly loyal, he's always waiting for her at the altar and always will be until his plastic decomposes.

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