There is, perhaps, no truer sign of how America is changing than the dolls our children play with. Stroll down the toy aisle to get a feel for the variety of facial expressions, skin colors, hair styles and attire. The blue-eyed, blond-haired, pale-skinned models no longer command prime shelf space.
So I wasn’t surprised to read that Mattel, the makers of the iconic Barbie line, my childhood favorite, recently rolled out 15 new Ken dolls with seven skin tones, nine hairstyles and three body types — slim, broad and original. (I see that there are no paunches or hint of premature baldness. But then, that might be too painfully realistic and we’re not there yet.)
“By continuing to expand our product line, we are redefining what a Barbie or Ken doll looks like to this generation,” said Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager, in a press release. “Evolving Ken was a natural evolution for the brand and allows girls to further personalize the role they want him to play in Barbie’s world.”
What took you so long, Mattel? You’re just now catching up with the rest of us, and we’re only going to grow more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau already has predicted that more than half of American children will belong to a minority race or ethnic group by 2020.
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Ken’s evolution has always lagged Barbie’s. Back in my time, Barbie in the workplace sparked headlines. Though I never owned an Astronaut Barbie, her shiny moon suit was still something to covet. Years later, when I was buying the dolls for my daughter and nieces, Barbie was again blazing new paths. She was an executive and a rock star, a presidential candidate and a veterinarian, a Marine Corps sergeant, an airline pilot and a firefighter.
Regardless of career choice or hair color, she also kept that improbable hourglass body — and without the aid of Spanx either! By the way, the stiletto heels hung around, too, proof that femininity and bunions have a place in the boardroom. Then last year, in a nod to those of us who will never have 34-inch hips, Mattel presented three new body types for Barbie — curvy, petite and tall (yay!) — while also adding new skin tones and hairstyles.
Her coiffed, square-jawed, chiseled-body boyfriend, on the other hand, changed little through the decades. Sure, he was a doctor and a rapping rocker, but as a rep for the endangered all-American male, he was … well, he was a bit bland and a whole lot boring. No more.
The new dolls’ fashion styles range from athletic chic to business casual, with a few confusing clothing designs in between. We now have Kens who rock corn rows, side bangs, a buzz cut and, believe it or not, a man bun. Stylin’ Stripes and Chill in Checks Kens wear glasses, and Classic Cool Ken sports a skinny black tie and silvery sneakers.
Though business analysts note Mattel likely is motivated more by money — sales have been lackluster — than by social commentary, I think the changes are a wise move for the company. It’s good to know that Ken’s job description, at least as Barbie’s sidekick, is expanding. Nevertheless, I’d like to know if the changes are truly a referendum on the future. A man’s worth is more than muscle-deep.
So here are the questions I’d ask if I was granted an interview:
▪ Will Ken cook, or at least start dinner, when he comes home from work? Fold laundry? Dust and mop? Will he do this without being nagged?
▪ Does he pick up after himself?
▪ How does he view the relationship and their roles in it?
▪ Has he encouraged Barbie to pursue her dream, whatever that might be?
▪ Is he willing to move when she gets the better job?
Yes, I know these aren’t questions toy-buying parents ask, but maybe one day Mattel might include the answers in the dolls’ website bios.