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A Ken For All Seasons

Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Here at the Pop Culture dadology laboratories, a sprawling space between the men's restroom and the color copier at Parenting and Babytalk headquarters, we not only examine people in the dad universe, but those on the fringe of father culture who affect our daditude. Which leads me to today's subject: Ken, Barbie's boy toy.

Ken turns 50 in 2011. This nugget of information arrived in an email from Mattel a couple weeks ago. I've learned a lot about Ken since then. Born March 11, 1961, Kenneth Carson is two years younger than Barbie, but is one inch taller (he's 12 inches, she's 11 inches). As you can see, he's adopted a number of different looks over the years, from Sun Lovin' Malibu Ken in the 70s to Totally Hair Ken in the '90s to Cutie Ken in the '00s. In his starring role in Toy Story 3, he had 50 costume changes. However, what surprised me most is that over the course of a half century, Ken and Barbie have not gotten married or had any children. In fact, according to my Ken factsheet, they broke up on Valentine's Day in 2004.

Ken is a vapid, single, dim sliver of molded plastic. And guys wish they were just like him.  

For decades now, fathers have watched their children tear into Ken's pink cardboard sarcaphagus on holidays and birthdays. The children squeal with glee while the dads groan and grumble. The wussification of America. Ken will instill a love of materialism and a thoughtless zeal for fleeting trends in our precious children. He's all that's wrong with America! The only problem is we've been trying to be him forever. Hand me any dad's high school yearbook, and I'll find a picture of him trying to be Sun Lovin' Malibu or Totally Hair. Show me a dad's dream gift wishlist, and I'll show you the jets, sportscars and elevator-equipped homes that Ken has owned over the years. And when it comes to commitment? Puleez. Ken held onto Barbie for 40+ years without popping the question. In that same time period, the rate of marriage has been on the decrease, and cohabitation has been on the rise. Coincidence? No wonder Ken is so vain: he's been a mirror of male culture since the Kennedy administration. A funhouse mirror, but a mirror no less.

I didn't get an email from Mattel simply because Ken is hitting the big five-oh. In a few days, Mattel will roll out its latest Ken doll: Sweet Talkin' Ken ("the ultimate boyfriend for every occasion"). By pressing a button on his back, you can record five seconds of sound, which can be played back in Ken's voice. For years, women have had the same refrain about men: "I wish he opened up and shared more with me." Now young girls can actually put the right words in Ken's mouth. Having been every previous incarnation of Ken, being the sweet, sensitive, talkative guy might be the hardest one yet for us to pull off.