Mattel might finally be accepting that their boy Ken is not your usual boy's toy -- because he is a boy toy.
There's been a ton written about Barbie as a lightning rod and figurehead of retrograde female sexuality. While Barbie has been criticized as a bad role model for young girls, aspiring bulimics and augmenters alike, comparitively little has been written about Ken. He's always been the sissy of boy dolls. He isn't an action figure; his express purpose is to be Barbie's boyfriend and a little girls' plaything. He is pretty much a mimbo -- a male bimbo.
Now that Ken is 51, mainstream culture seems willing to finally embrace his
swishier tendencies. In 1995, Pixar had wanted to include Ken and Barbie in the original Toy Story film, but Mattel wasn't interested. In Toy Story 3, opening this weekend, Ken is now a central character, voiced by actor Michael Keaton.
If you wrangle together Woody, the cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, the space-ranger and Ken, the boy Barbie, Toy Story 3 begins to look a lot like The Village People. And the comic wizards at Pixar seem to know that you can't animate a Ken doll in 2010 without a wink-wink nudge-nudge. Maybe Ken is gay or maybe he's just a girly-man; with a dashing cowboy and a macho astro-hero in the room, Ken only has eyes for Barbie. One of the film's best exchanges: Ken: "I like your leg-warmers." Barbie: "Nice Ascot."
And you know that montage in romantic comedies where the ingenue goes through her closet and tries on all her clothes as energizing pop music overwhelms the soundtrack? Ken might be the first male to be the subject of that rom-com mainstay. One of the chief conceits of Toy Story Ken is that he's a clothes horse, a toy boy Carrie Bradshaw with a Dream House full of outfits from every era. Thrilled to learn that Barbie shares his passion for fashion, he treats her to a fashion show -- from Malibu Ken to Mod Ken to Scuba Ken, Pilot Ken to Disco Ken -- modeled to the disco beat of "Le Freak."
Some of the other toys taunt Ken -- ("you're a girl's toy," "you're an accessory") -- but seem to take his metro-sexuality in stride. In one scene, Barbie dresses up as Astronaut Ken for an espionage mission. When she retrieves the operations manual she seeks, an old, stuffed bookworm notes Barbie's pink high heels, "Sheesh," he says.
Maybe Mattel is something like this sheeshing worm with its "what you gonna do?" attitude. In 1995, when they passed on Toy Story, they may have wanted to preserve the doll's dignity and authenticity. They have been known to be super litigious about the toys. They've sued artists for misappropriating their characters, they've sued musicians for singing about Barbie -- they have claimed that such samplings of the Barbie brand "violated the Barbie trademark and turned Barbie into a sex object."
They would likely have sued Todd Haynes for his 1987 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which starred Barbie as the pop singer who died from anorexia. The choice implies that "the Barbie Syndrome" contributes to body issues. But Karen's brother, Richard, sued Haynes first, some say, for insinuating that he was gay.
This summer, Mattel, like parents who have known their son is gay for a long time, seems to have gone from litigation to acceptance. Like overzealous parents at their first PFLAG march, Mattel is releasing the Sugar Daddy Ken doll. The doll -- part of the Palm Beach line -- will be sporting a dashing jacquard-patterned jacket with a light pink polo shirt, crisp white pants -- and a West Highland Terrier. He is pretty much the gay Ken.
Also, Mattel is coming out with a line of Mad Men collector Barbies -- including a Don Draper Ken. As one blogger quipped, "Don Draper Ken Doll Still Sleeps Around Despite Lack of Genitals."
Ironic adults are probably the target audience for these evolved Ken dolls. Barbie and Ken have long been the focal point of campy and political art and activism. An art form/hobby referred to as Playscale Miniaturism often uses Barbie dolls to subvert traditional values. (The 8th annual Altered Barbie Exhibition arrives in San Francisco this fall.)
Back in the '80s, The Barbie Liberation Organization switched the voice boxes of talking G.I. Joe dolls with talking Barbies -- and then returned them to the toy store shelves. Such underground activism is no longer necessary with mom and dad Mattel giving their blessing to the Sugar Daddy Ken.