New Ken, Same Old Barbie World

Have you heard about the recent release of a new line of Ken dolls? They’re part of toy giant Mattel’s efforts to bounce back from a sales slump.

At first, I was kind of excited by this new addition to the Barbie brood. I’m all for representing a diverse array of human beings in plastic human form–especially when that array includes groups of people who’ve been left out of the Barbie universe.

But then I read this press release, in which senior vice president and general manager Lisa McKnight clarifies that new Ken “allows girls to further personalize the role they want him to play in Barbie’s world.”

Ah. I see. New Ken was not designed as a way to grow Barbie’s fan club by inviting boys in. Rather, he exists to allow little girls to choose a more contemporary plastic man of their dreams.

Something tells me that selling the same old thing (albeit with a man bun) is not going to pull Mattel out of its slump. But here’s what might: how about marketing New Ken as a gateway doll for boys who dig that Barbie life?

I have a son who just turned 20. He has an older sister who served as his guide through childhood. That means he spent lots of time playing with Barbie and friends—including Old Ken. He also played dress-up, often as part of a game my children called Neighbor.

That game involved–as near as I could tell–one of them knocking on the other’s bedroom door, being greeted enthusiastically with “Hi, Neighbor!” and being invited inside. (How this game proceeded once the bedroom door closed again, only my children know.) After a while, they’d change roles and the whole process would start over with a knock on another door.

I never worried that playing with Barbies, dressing up, or playing hours and hours of Neighbor was in some way dangerous to my son’s psyche. If he learned anything from playing with his sister, it was how to answer a door politely and entertain a guest in a way that makes them want to return. And as it turns out, he can do those things in standard-issue dude clothes, too.

In spite of his time in Barbie World, my son grew up to be what most people would consider stereotypically “masculine.” He prefers a high five to a hug. He fills out a March Madness bracket every year and takes me to the occasional Spurs game during basketball season. He dreams of having a wife and being a dad someday.

My son lives in a world that teaches him, daily, what it means to be a man. He can’t help but absorb some of those lessons. But he’s also unabashedly feminist–and I’m pretty sure that started with Barbie.

Make no mistake: I’m not the sort of person who sees Barbie as a feminist icon because she occasionally dons a doctor’s coat. I was happy when my daughter moved out of her Barbie phase (and deeply conflicted while she worked through it. I reminded myself that I played with Barbies, too, and I became a professor of Women’s Studies. They’re just dolls, after all.)

But I absolutely believe that giving boys the freedom to play in whatever way they want is the first step toward raising feminist men–those who prioritize, understand, and work toward equality. That kind of play allows them to see there’s nothing inherently dangerous about being identified with things marked as “feminine.” And that, in turn, is the first step toward facing the fact that gender is not a this-or-that binary.

Because he understands all of this, my son is distressed by ridiculous legislation like Texas’s Senate Bill 6, which would have prevented trans people from using the public bathroom that matches their gender identity. (SB 6 wasn’t successful during the regular legislative session, but our governor has called a special July session and indicates that bathroom regulations definitely will be on the agenda.) He was horrified by the recent Bill Cosby verdict–or, rather, the lack thereof.

He understands that, as a man, he lives in a world that automatically affords him a level of respect that his mother, sister, cousins, and friends do not receive.

How does he know this? The real world makes it pretty clear, on a daily basis. Dozens of women accused Cosby of assault, for instance, yet their chorus of voices carried less weight than his alone–in spite of the fact that he admits to much of the behavior they describe. His only defense: these were consensual encounters.

That statement is all it took for one man to wipe out the credibility of his many accusers. It isn’t hard to see the lack of respect in a case of he said/they said. Not when they are women.

New Ken could be leading the revolution to change that dynamic. Instead, he’s being presented as an ambassador to the past. Barbie was the product of a world where little girls were encouraged to stay inside and play quietly with their dolls while boys ran outside to do their thing–to “be boys,” as we’re still told they cannot help but be.

And, at the moment, New Ken is enjoying a measure of success. But I suspect little girls will soon discover that the worlds they can build with New Ken are exactly the same as those they’d envisioned before his arrival.

If little boys are encouraged to join in the fun, though–that might be a game-changer.

A slightly different version of this post appears on She Dwells in Possibility.