Ken’s New Look(s), Deconstructed – The New York Times


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Some of the new looks for Ken, the Mattel doll introduced in 1961 as a partner for Barbie.

Just in time for men’s fashion week in Paris, Ken (yes, as in Barbie and Ken) has gotten a major new look. Or rather, several of them.

Ken, a former icon of bland, unrealistic masculinity for children everywhere, now comes in seven skin tones, three body types, eight hair colors, and nine hairstyles (including cornrows, fade, shaggy dog, quiff and buzz cut). He also has a new panoply of wardrobe possibilities that include skinny suits, faux hipster plaid and beach bum tanks. It’s the biggest reboot of the boy since he was introduced in 1961.

The aim, according to the announcement from the doll’s maker, Mattel, is to better reflect the actual population. And, of course, to raise sales (that wasn’t in the company’s statement, but one can infer), which have been on a downward trajectory. It was also presumably a nod to gender equality, since Barbie got the diversification treatment last year, and Ken is nothing if not an accessory to Barbie.

Will the revamp work?

Though reaction has generally been positive — it’s about time, after all — the Ken look that has caused the most public excitement (among grown-ups, anyway) was not the remodeled “broad” (a.k.a. “Dad bod”) Ken or the “slim” (read, “scrawny”) Ken, but “man bun” Ken. The man bun has spawned an echo chamber of who-can-mock-it-more commentary online.

You get the idea. It’s a little unfair. That particular hairstyle is no sillier than the others, really. But it does reflect the fact that Mattel is defining diversity not just in terms of skin color or body type, but also in terms of aesthetic stereotype: psychographic trends, as well as demographic trends. Which is to say: fashion.

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Among the Ken choices: seven skin colors and eight hair colors.

After all, the new Kens — they are officially called the New Crew and cost $9.99 each — are included in the brand’s Fashionistas line of dolls, as opposed to, say, the Career line. Even the size choices are practically fashion categories: Broad sure sounds a lot like Brawn, the name of IMG’s plus-size male division. Skinny Ken looks like he belongs in a YSL show. As a group, they present a pretty faithful replication of general male stereotypes as they often appear on the runway, if not in real life.

There’s just a wider variety to chose from. Silicon Valley Ken! Weedy musician Ken! Surfer Ken! Brooklyn maker space Ken! They’re all in there. (And as a result, though part of the argument for the changes is that children deserve dolls that look like them, it would be more accurate to say that the dolls resemble their dads, or their “mannies,” or their favorite guitar teachers.)

But the thing about those stereotypes is that while they may reflect the moment, or the moment that is about to happen, they don’t necessarily have staying power. They have the transitory appeal and immediacy of any trend. And if fashion teaches us anything, it’s that trends change.

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