Ken: He’s Just an American Guy

The updated toy template for male American imagery emerges in a culture very much at odds with the pluralism he represents. And that's OK: He’s not alone.

Manbuns, bigger guns, cornrows, and pushing back against the binary convenience of black and white — an indulgence of abstraction we couldn’t afford then and can’t afford now (© 2017 Mattel)

The artifact historically known as Ken — a template for male American imagery for generations — has always been something of a moving target. From his early days as a miniature stand-in for the ideal guy next door in the parallel dollhouse America of 1961 (paired up with his girlfriend, female analog and fellow everyday archetype, the legendary Barbie), Ken would slowly, in some ways glacially, come to symbolize variations in the idea of the average American guy.

Down through the years, the variations on the theme of Ken were more cosmetic than anything else: different hairstyles, a flirtation with a beard; changes in the chisel and shape of the face; even a 2014 Ken with Italianate features, a shift from his Anglo-Saxonesque heritage (Gianfranco Ken was a limited-edition collectors’ item).

Now, Mattel, the El Segundo, Calif.-based manufacturer of the doll that’s been sold hundreds of millions of times in the United States and abroad, has performed a startling Ken remake, releasing a “new crew” line of Ken dolls whose personae span more of American race, ethnicity, culture and gym membership than ever before.

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We’re a long way from Dream Date Ken a la 1984: With 15 new iterations bearing three new body types and no fewer than eight skin tones, the new Ken line is a promising concession to market forces and demographic reality — one that more fully identifies, and identifies with, the mosaic of today’s America.

But the irony's inescapable: No longer the captive inaction figure of its originating decade in the relatively monocultural past, the new Ken emerges into a national culture that’s increasingly insular, fearful and at odds with the very pluralism he represents. 

We can safely say that the malaise and anger that form so much of the nation’s deeper, more introspective conversation — the one the nation has privately with itself — starts with the political culture, with President* Donald Trump at the head of the parade. The drum-major-cum-grand wizard has approved, by executive order, the start of a panoramic unraveling of the social fabric that has until now bound its various communities in a common allegiance to a country that at least seemed to believe in them.

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It can’t be overlooked that a rise in hate crimes against people of color and Muslims has roughly dovetailed with the onset of the Trump Experience. A wealth of data from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) tragically bears this out.

Mattel has thus committed to a seemingly bold strategy: releasing a line of its iconic toys that celebrates a pluralism currently under siege. But what might look risky or courageous is more a case of woke marketing: pitching your famous product to as wide and deep a potential customer base as possible. Mattel did much the same thing in January 2016, when changes were announced for Barbie and intended to reflect more of the way real women, with real proportions, actually look.

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Now as then, the expansion of looks for these fixtures of the toy world indicates a practical strategy rooted in a need to reverse a sales slump. But the Ken changes also point to a shift of the perceived cultural bandwidth, one that’s more and more apparent in movies and television. He’s hardly alone on this frontier.

John Boyega, the black British actor, took the lead in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the 2015 rebooting of a vital motion-picture franchise, and stars in Kathryn Bigelow’s much-awaited Detroit, out in August. The Muslim-American comedian and writer Aziz Ansari continues to enjoy phenomenal success as the creator and star of Netflix’s Master of None. Jason Momoa, who is of Hawaiian, Native American and European descent, stars in The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour’s dystopian fantasy, and will play the lead in Aquaman, an all-but-certain standalone movie franchise. African American Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up) stars as the title character in the greatly-anticipated Black Panther, due from Marvel in February. 

That grasp of diversity is obvious when you look at the shades of the new Ken. With its four racial or ethnic identities — black, white, Latino and Asian — the new Ken clan isn’t entirely something-for-everyone, but it’s closer to that than we’ve seen in more than 50 years.

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What they’ve got in common is a more defined muscularity than previous Kens. Many of the new 15 Kens sport larger biceps and a sturdier build; some carry somewhat bigger guns than others. Beyond that, just about anything goes.

There are, for example, four Blond & Blue Kens, variously wearing clothes suitable for the beach, the workplace or the club. One of three young style-forward African Americans — we’ll call him Cornrows Ken — wears a white shirt, a black tie, and slacks, the height of workaday business casual. 

Manbun Jr. Ken, a youngish-looking style maven wearing the much-maligned Millennial hairstyle, is only slightly contrasted with Manbun Hunk Ken, who looks to be an older, buffed-up version of Jr., with middle-aged girth (and manbun) intact.

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I could go deeper into the bench, but with those descriptions (and the picture at the top of this story), you get the idea. Regardless of the economic rationale — Mattel sales fell 13 percent to $123 million in the first quarter of this year, down from $141 million last year — inclusion is front and center as a lever for this toymaker's business. “There’s a need in popular culture, like ... fashion or media, to see a representation of everybody, so it’s not isolating people for being different, but really celebrating all types,” said Robert Best, Mattel senior designer, to The Guardian UK.

Mattel’s clearly seeking to cover the bases with a 31-flavors approach to what it hopes is its latest toy star, but there’s a reality there borne of more than the bottom line. The nation’s multiculti experience has always been bigger — wider — than black and white. Looking on it that way has been an indulgence of abstraction we couldn’t afford then and can’t afford now, and one that's never reflected what America really looked like.

Mattel’s corporate tagline is “Creating the Future of Play.” A line like that — bold as a mission statement as it is — carries extra weight with the advent of its latest toy line. As the next-gen Kens show now, there’s more than one typical American guy. As last year’s Barbie reimagining indicated, there’s more than one look to the look of the future.  

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly,, Salon, The Root, Wired, BuzzFeed, and other publications. 

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