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6.29.2017

Ken by Mattel

With his perma-tan, perfect teeth and sculpted body, Mattel's Ken doll always seemed a world away from the real man. But now, in his biggest aesthetic update since 1961, he finally looks like one of us –sort of– as a new Ken is launched with three body shapes, eight new skin tones, and nine hairstyles (including cornrows, fade, shaggy dog, quiff and buzz cut).
Issues around body inclusivity are something Ken might have discussed on date nights with his on/off (girl)friend Barbie, who knows this terrain only too well. In 2015, when a new range of Barbies launched, revising the shape and ethnicity of their most popular doll into more inclusive terrain, the change earned her a Time magazine cover. Out went the tiny waist, enormous chest and even, in some cases, the bottle-blonde hair. Now, it's Ken's turn. And this new Ken comes in four ethnicities –Asian, African-American, Caucasian, and Latino– and have two new body sizes –broad and slim, which will be available along with the existing rippling-torsoed model. At first glance, they aren't wildly different from the original -there is no truly plus-sized Ken among them. Broad Ken is just that –think Chris Pine in his early Parks and Rec days, not Eric Pickles. Slim Ken is skinny and boy-like. But with neither being ripped or sculpted, these new dolls mark something of a change. In an aggressively visualised culture, there are many reasons men change their body shapes. "I don't believe partners' demands are the driving force", said Toby Wiseman. The fantasia of manhood presented by Cristiano Ronaldo, Jason Statham and the cast of Geordie Shore is still at a healthy remove from most men's reality. "It's more the mirror, the guy next to you in the gym, the suit that doesn't fit quite as well anymore, the role-model who is defying the ticking clock and inspiring you to do the same", he continued. "Instagram may play a part for gym bros and the Geordie Shore crew, but these guys aren't representative of the majority. Most men with an interest in their health and physical fitness are doing it for themselves. They want to improve themselves, in all senses". If Ken's relaxed new mood surrounding self-image is shifting manfully with the tide, his new ethnicities may prove even more evocative of their times. Mattel launched a black Ken doll called Brad in the late 1960s. A Latino Ken under Trump arrives with an accidental political significance no one could have anticipated. "Right ?". "When I look at the makeup of our own team, we have South Americans, Latinos from Mexico, Koreans". They do not just want to be making dolls for little white girls, he says. "Traditional Ken was kind of a lean athlete", said Robert Best, a senior designer at Mattel, the creators of Barbie, who was involved in Ken's new look. "There's not the same scrutiny levels on male physiognomy or appearance that women undergo", he added, then posited -with palpable southern Californian enthusiasm– that we should be "holding hands with the conversation” about men's body issues". So can #Kenbod earn Barbie's (boy)friend a place in the changing dialogue around male physicality ? If that was the aim, you wonder why they didn't go fatter or, at least, a bit more dadbod. Still, in an aggressively visualised culture, where images of manhood are presented by beefcakes, anything that runs counter to the rippled ideal feels like a positive step. Of all the new features of #Kenbod, the most divisive may turn out to be that much-maligned twenty-teens styling trick : the man-bun. "What I love is that we can create reaction", said Mr Best. "What's fun about Ken and Barbie, certainly what's kept me here these last twenty years, is that we've been part of the conversation reflecting popular culture –it's that moment you look back on your school yearbook, thinking 'why did I think a wedge hairstyle would look good on me ?' It looks daft on Ken, just as it looks daft on everybody. Manbun Ken looks like a guy who failed to get a bit part as a barista on HBO’s Girls". Clearly, the new Ken is quite lols, but will he land an era-defining Time cover ? It seems unlikely. "Ken wouldn't make it onto the cover of Men's Health", said its editor Toby Wiseman. "He's an accessory. A piece of arm candy. He is defined by his status as an escort". Still, in an age where the idealized male body-shape is drip-feeding into social media feeds with increasing regularity, even a tiny bit of progress is progress of sorts.
The new looks are an effort to reboot interest in the dolls. As more children cling to screens rather than traditional toys, Barbie sales are declining -down 13% in the first three months of the year compared with the same period a year ago. A live-action Barbie movie is slated for summer 2018, and originally was going to star Amy Schumer. The first-ever live-action adaptation for the Mattel toy is meant to serve as a "contemporary spin on beauty, feminism, and identity", issues Mattel has at times struggled to navigate. "By continuing to expand our product line, we are redefining what a Barbie or Ken doll looks like to this generation", said Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of Barbie. Some of the new $9.99 Ken dolls are already available in select shops and online stores, but will be widely available July 8.

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