The Secret Life of Ken

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The Secret Life of Ken

Thursday March 08, 2018 Written by Mel Campbell

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When Barbara Roberts met Kenneth Carson in 1961, he was hardly boyfriend material. He was made of vinyl.

Two years earlier, Mattel toy entrepreneur Ruth Handler had successfully launched a doll named Barbie, after her daughter. Now, Barbie’s male companion was named after Handler’s son. “He’s a doll!” sighed the ads. Not quite, yet. Clean-cut and nerdy in red swimming trunks, Ken had stick legs, a skinny concave chest, and withered little T-rex arms that didn’t even bend at the elbow. Like many men, he was losing his hair… because it was made of flocked felt that fell off when wet. (See the 1961 TV commercial introducing Ken to the world – it's really something.)

But Ken was also a master of reinvention, and followed shifting ideals of masculinity to appeal to each new generation. In 1962 he got a moulded plastic crew cut and a preppy dress sense, and Barbie glimpsed the hunk potential in his 12 inches. By the late ’60s Ken was sunbathing and pumping iron. He and Barbie moved to glamorous Malibu in 1971.

In 1972 Ken went mod. Groovy rooted nylon hair replaced his moulded ’do, and Barbie was hot for his attachable moustache, beard and sideburns. Come 1977, he was resculpted as the dimpled Superstar Ken, with luscious side-parted plastic hair to make a LEGO man die of envy. He disco-danced, elbows cocked like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

The early ’80s were the hectic Day to Night times. Barbie and Ken would power into their separate offices, then cleverly transform their businesswear into cocktail attire for after-work dates. The ’90s? A blur of novelty beachwear, designer shopping and adventure sports.

Then, in 2004 – the betrayal. Barbie left Ken for an Australian boogie-boarder named Blaine. (Yep, he has his own Wiki page...) To add saltwater to the wound, a Barbie.com poll found that fans actually preferred the Aussie upstart. Ken retaliated with a 2006 makeover by celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who ditched Ken’s swimwear-based wardrobe for jeans, hoodies and biker jackets, including a T-shirt reading “I’M BACK”. “It’s Matthew McConaughey meets Orlando Bloom,” Bloch said of Ken’s pouty new facial mould and tousled boy-band hair. How could Barbie resist? She held out until Valentine’s Day 2011. Sweet Talkin’ Ken celebrated their reunion with skinny jeans, a snug-fit tee with the slogan “ULTIMATE BOYFRIEND”, and forearms of truly erotic girth.

While Barbie’s mission is to show little girls they can achieve anything, Ken’s purpose is hazier. He’s tried a range of careers, but overwhelmingly he mirrors Barbie – a rare example of a male pop-cultural figure defined solely by his relationship. In 1986 he joined Barbie’s band The Rockers. Later, in a desperate incel moment in 2009, Ken wore a fedora, with a T-shirt emblazoned with Barbie’s giant face and the slogan “See you in my dreams”.

Ken is literally objectified: women (and men) can dress him, groom him, and cast him in any stories they like. He is also suspiciously easy to incorporate into queer narratives. His oldest, dearest male friend is auburn-haired, brown-eyed Allan Sherwood, introduced in 1963 as “Ken’s Buddy”. “He wears all Ken’s clothes!” the catalogues observed without irony. In 1981, Allan married Barbie’s best friend Midge Hadley, with Ken looking on as best man.

The clothes alone are enough to suggest that Barbie is really Ken’s beard. In 1988, Animal-Lovin’ Ken wore an aqua-blue leopard-print shirt with coordinating short-shorts and chiffon neckerchief. His club-ready ’90s looks included mesh crop tops, lilac pleather vests, blonde-tipped hair; and notoriously in 1993, an earring. The 15 new Fashionistas Ken dolls released in 2017 look like a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy casting call.

The real Ken – Mattel founder Ruth Handler’s son – died in 1994. He was married with three kids, but a 2009 book speculates he was a closeted gay man and the brain tumour that killed him was AIDS-related. Handler told People magazine in 1989: “Ken is Malibu … He goes to the beach and surfs. I was the kind of kid who played piano and went to movies with subtitles.”

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A version of this article appears in Smith Journal volume 26.  Buy a copy from our online shop, or find your local stockist.

Photographer: Natalie Jeffcott