More than an accessory: Ken gets a makeover
In a last ditch effort to make him relevant, Barbie's pal has been relaunched - but it may take more than a man bun to save him, writes Bill Linnane
Is there any toy more tragic than Ken? Since his creation back in 1959, his life has been one tragi-comic misadventure after another. Initially created with authentic felt hair, he had to suffer the embarrassment of many follicularly challenged men when it turned out that his lush head of hair fell off when it got wet.
Physically, he has the rigid upright stance of someone with a slipped disc, or perhaps one of the guys from Kraftwerk, but it is his personal life that is most rigid of all. Ostensibly created as a love interest for Barbie, poor auld Ken has been boxed off in the friend zone for decades now, with his creators Mattel never precisely specifying the nature of their relationship, leaving Ken to ponder his place in her life - gay best friend, purely platonic pal, or creepy flatmate she mistakenly let out the spare room in the dreamhouse to?
After a life of loneliness (even lone-wolf hero Action Man has his life partner, GI Joe) and confusion about his role in life, the death blow to traditional Ken was dealt by Toy Story 3, in which he was thoroughly lampooned as a preening narcissist. There was no coming back from it. So the good news is that Mattel have relaunched Ken for our modern times, with a selection of fresh new looks, body shapes, hairstyles and, ultimately, lessons for the child of today.
The old Ken was a sexless prop in Barbie's world. While his arch nemesis Action Man had a walk-on part in the war, poor Ken took the lead role in a cage. Granted, neither of them had any trace of genitalia, but while Action Man was out destabilising governments and having rocks thrown at him, Ken's passive existence was a pity to behold.
Not so now - the reboot takes him from 'Ken doll' to 'Ken playfigure', a huge leap forward for the toy world's least popular eunuch. New Ken comes with attitude, and his fresh new looks show that he is more than Barbie's accessory.
He is still, of course, unrealistically perfect, but then living with no genitals means he has a lot more time to dedicate to sorting out his eyebrows, trimming his ear hair and treating his fungal nail(s).
Old Ken's body shape was just as alien as Barbie's; a study in 2005 showed that for the average man to have Ken's physique, he would need to grow 20 inches taller and add nearly eight inches to his neck circumference, 11 inches to his chest and 10 inches to his waist.
Thankfully new Ken has scaled back these unrealistic ambitions, with three new body types - slim, original and 'broad', that same euphemistic term that your mam used when she couldn't fasten the cape for your CBS school band around your neck.
Broad Ken - or Fat Ken as he will most likely be called by the other toys - is probably the best Ken of the new breed, as his portly frame teaches young girls that some day their prince will come, then get settled, then get fat, and that golf is not really exercise.
Ken's new body confidence, man-bun, corn rows, and general swagger means he has his pick of partners, but given that he is still a child's toy, he will presumably continue to be a bit part in a vague storyline about Barbie going shopping, standing around changing rooms while she tries on a selection of hats, like that scene in noted romcom Sleeping with the Enemy.
Ken is the non-threatening asexual longtime companion for Barbie, endlessly shifting and then perfecting his appearance in the hope that she will fall in love with him, but since he first met her back in 1959, she hasn't shown the slightest interest.
Perhaps it's time for Mattel to release the poor guy from his loveless hell and issue a Tinder Ken - or Grindr Ken - because it doesn't matter how many times he suggests they watch When Harry Met Sally, he holds no appeal for Barbie. It's almost like her dead plastic eyes don't even see him anymore.
Most people would say that the only job Ken ever had was as bag-minder for Barbie, but he has had almost 40 occupations since his creation.
Many of them are more hobbies than actual jobs - bodybuilder, beach bum, and fraternity member being the bottom scraping of Ken's less than illustrious career. This in itself is a positive message for girls, as they can't all marry princes, astronauts or even guys with actual jobs that pay.
The new Ken comes in a selection of looks, all of which make it seem he is either a digital marketer or aloof clothes-folder at American Apparel, neither of which pay enough for Barbie to get that Malibu beach house, or even a mobile home in Bundoran.
The saddest part of Ken's story is that this complete reimagining of him is Mattel's last ditch attempt to make him and Barbie relevant. Kids today just aren't interested in playfigures like Ken and Barbie, and they are fast becoming relics of a bygone age.
Ken's new look is really just a midlife crisis, as he tries to save his crumbling relationship and thus himself - because, like a lot of men, without his significant other, he is nothing.