Author’s Note: This is a fictional account of events, I am 90% sure.
Of all the tricks I regularly employ, convincing a flock of vulnerable, panracial new Ken dolls to American Girl Cafe to speak to me about their impending debut was one of the cruelest of this quarter.
But what can I say? Like the coyote and Loki who cut the hair of the goddess Sif before me, it is my burden in life to be the trickster.
In the event that you missed Caity Weaver’s sweeping journalistic masterwork on the new Fashionista Ken line in GQ last week or the many jolted clickbait impostors it inspired, Mattel has elected to have Ken, in typical Ken fashion, follow Barbie’s lead into the modern toy market with a series of new facial molds, skin tones and body types to more closely mirror the men Barbie consumers encounter in everyday life. Gone is the dickless swim captain blonde dreamboat, and waltzing into the American Girl Cafe are six dolls that are the new dickless ideal.
A Ken in an athlete’s shirt that says “Malibu 01” and cargo shorts approaches me with tanned skin and blue eyes and observes the American Girl Cafe. He knows he’s been tricked. “I thought you said you invited us to your favorite little bistro in LA,” he told me with a level of irritation that indicates that he may be the alpha Ken.
“I did,” I answered. Twelve inches tall to my seventy-one, he backs down. He has to. That’s one of the best parts of a Ken doll—he’s an accessory, with the concept of giving his female counterpart her way regardless of how he really feels baked into his eunuch’s DNA. He gestures to the other Kens with various sculpted fades, cornrows, flat-tops, and levels of ab definition to take their seats at the American Girl Cafe booth I’ve reserved to keep them on their fused plastic toes. My boyfriend Logan, the American Girl boy doll that launched earlier this year, sits in the high chair the restaurant provides, judging my subjects silently. No Ken is going to steal his woman. Not today.
“The lemonade here is really good,” I continue, and order a round from a waiter who both knows me by name and hates me deeply. The Kens shift uncomfortably in their seats. Because they are not posable figures, it looks like a risk of lobsters moments before being plunged into my ex-stepdad’s brass pot full of boiling water. But let’s keep my ex-stepdad out of this.
Ken, as an entity, has been around since 1961, only two years after the debut of Barbie. Like his girlfriend of over half a century (Mattel execs are quick to point out that all weddings Barbie and Ken have participated in are strictly “dream weddings”), he’s cycled through several dozen occupations, something you can find time for when you’re unburdened by pleasures of the flesh. Most of Ken’s jobs are some variant on a prince or a hottie and my favorite, “1991 Modified Alan.” When I was growing up, there were many 1991 Modified Alans slouching around.
“How are you?” I ask the Kens. There is a pause, and the men look between each other. Finally, a black Ken in a flannel speaks on behalf of the group.
“I think I speak for all Kens when I say we are good.”
Logan and I exchange a look—something is awry with the Kens. Granted, they were Frankensteined together in a California laboratory by a man named Ray and are not allowed to say whether they are Barbie’s friend, lover, father, brother or whathaveyou to avoid any conflict of interest with the kid (likely a girl) who will play with them. This is one of my favorite parts of the toy industry, albeit one of the more perverted ones. Part of the reason the panracial paradise Kens are sitting before me are due to Mattel employees assigned to watch “play patterns,” or stare at children slowly dressing and undressing a dickless doll for several hours to determine whether one of the Kens would benefit from wearing a watch or not. The Kens have been through a lot. They’re freaks. They seem afraid.
“I meant, how are you individually?”
Man-Bun Ken, who is either a record producer or a barista but definitely enjoys fingering more than sex for some reason, pipes up. “We’re all good, and friendly, and good, and always ask permission before, you know, and never sex, and definitely lasting friendship, and Barbie is beautiful but first and foremost, we respect her. Hello. I am Ken.”
“Totally,” the five other Kens respond in unison.
“Okay,” I say. Before me are six different Kens of six different races, outfits and builds, Fashionistas one and all, and they all have the same answer to the same open-ended question? Herein lies the dilemma of the Ken—while Mattel’s effort to increase its representation is impressive, the blank slate quality of the doll based on its own history makes having a completely fictional conversation I insisted on writing to my editor’s reluctance with the Kens pretty impossible.
Consider: the Kens are designed with no personality other than “good guy” very intentionally. As Mattel rep Michael Shore explained to Weaver in the GQ feature, part of the reason that many different Ken looks are being released in the first place is to more closely represent the men in a young girl’s life, an umbrella that can range from fathers to uncles to teachers to friends and, a little later (around second grade, studies say) romantic interests. Pegging a Ken of any color or physical build as “the boyfriend” is limiting for a product that can function as an imagination avatar for kids beginning around age three and all the way into junior high (though of course they must be conducted in secret by that time).
Counterpoint: while giving Ken no personality is a smart marketing move and largely represents the reality of most men I have met in my life, isn’t it a wasted opportunity to present these different men without some insight into who they are? This can easily be extended to the Fashionista Barbies of 2016 who appear as Tall, Petite and Curvy—are we to believe that these Barbies will, in spite of their differences, act and react in the exact same way that old school German porno nipple-less Barbie would? Maybe it’s the fact that I’m surrounded by American Girls (and Logan), but I’m a gal who likes a narrative.
Meanwhile, I have ordered every Ken at the table salmon as their main course at the American Girl Cafe. This is partially because the Kens insisted that they would love whatever I ordered them, and partially because it’s extremely fun to say “I’ll have the salmon” at the American Girl Cafe. They eat silently.
I try to make some conversation, and speak to the doll I would most like to have sex with, were he not dickless. Let’s call him “Beefcake Ken with Glasses and Dark Hair.”
“So, what do you do?” I ask. I can feel Logan’s weird American Girl glass eyes glowering from across the table. Part of me wants to lay him down so they automatically close. I am working, Logan. This is a professional conversation between myself and Beefcake Ken with Glasses, and you’re honestly lucky I’ve even allowed you to be here.
Beefcake Ken looks over to Cornrows Ken Wearing Tie and hesitates before gesturing to his glasses. “You know,” he says nervously. “Glasses stuff.”
This response angers the alpha Ken. “But what is glasses stuff, anyway?” he snaps at Beefcake Ken. “Are we truly going to limit certain activities to the bespectacled simply because of preconceived notions about the visually impaired?” Alpha Ken’s chisled abs quake beneath his “Malibu 01” shirt and Asian Ken in V-Neck touches his shoulder.
“Ken isn’t usually like this,” he assures me. “We’re just under a lot of pressure right now. Ask whatever questions you want.”
Now that I know Alpha Ken’s press tour has left him as unhinged as Johnny Depp showing up to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, I pounce. Surely the other Kens can be broken, too.
“Do you mind if I ask you what your ethnic background is?” I ask a Ken.
“I’m whatever you want me to be,” he responds quickly, touching his chrome sunglasses. “Daft Punk is dope.”
“Are you Barbie’s boyfriend or her brother or what?” I ask another Ken, this one with cornrows and a tie.
“I’m whoever you want me to be,” he replies. “I respect Barbie and she’s cool as hell.” This is fucked up. Can I make him kiss my Tall Barbie or not? I am a law-abiding citizen.
“I love you,” Logan chimes up from across the table.
“Not now, Logan,” I respond. I’m onto something. “Ken,” I ask another, “how old are you?”
The Ken in the V-neck. “Malibu 01!” he shrieks. “Malibu 01!” The Kens break out into a chorus of panicked shouts upon being pressed for too many specifics, some of them yelling about the post-traumatic stress of growing up in a room full of doll appendages, others about the master’s degree they put on hold to become a Ken, the alpha Ken in the “Malibu 01” shirt babbling something about jet fuel and steel beams as his painted eyes appeared to roll back into his head.
“You okay, babe?” Logan asks as I observe the small riot of Kens, who have begun to toss tiny handfuls of salmon at each other with their fused-together fingers. God, I love Logan. Logan is my rock.
“I’m okay, babe,” I respond before slamming my human-sized hand on the table’s surface, rattling everyone’s lemonade. I don’t look carefully enough before I land, and end up accidentally squishing and denting Beefcake Ken with Glasses’ head. Why don’t they just make the heads solid? Poor Beefcake Ken.
“Listen up, Ken,” I say. “We’re getting dessert. And I want you—“ I look between their gorgeous eyes of many colors, tears welling up in each and every one—“- to get the dessert that you want.”
The Kens go silent. I realize now that I have functioned thus far as their stand-in Barbie, or in my case, six Barbies stacked on top of each other in an outfit that could only be described as “visibly dirty.” The Kens take their cues from the women wielding them, which is a precedent I’d like to see enacted more closely in federal government, but for this particular table feels like a misplaced sentiment. People, and strategically designed dolls to look a little fat but not too fat and don’t you dare use the word fat when describing this Ken doll, usually benefit from listening to one another. I want to know what the Kens have to say. And I want to know what their dessert orders are.
It seems to be working. Asian Ken with V-Neck’s eyes dart toward the Chocolate Mousse Flowerpot. Beefcake Ken, who has recovered from the head smoosh, checks out The Biggest Brownie Sundae Ever. Cornrows Ken is more of a Wild Berry Sorbet guy. Just a the waiter who sees me for what I am, a grown woman with six Kens and a Logan approaches, Alpha Ken, Mr. Malibu ’01 (the Mr. Worldwide of the Barbie universe) himself, protests.
“We will all have The Classic Milkshake,” he declares. The faces of the other Kens fall, but I saw this coming. I allow it, and excuse myself to speak with the waiter as the Kens return to their tense conversation, which is mostly just repeating their shared name to the others. Ken, Ken, Ken.
I touch the shoulder of our waiter.
“Don’t touch me,” he says sharply.
“Okay and that’s fair,” I reply, “but will you please help me prank one of the Kens for the purpose of closure for the article I am writing, which has already gone on way too long and is wasting everyone’s time?”
He removes my grubby hand from my shoulder because I haven’t. “I guess.”
Moments later, the waiter returns with six Classic Milkshakes, and two Chocolate Cherry Sweetheart Milkshakes for Logan and me. I know invoking the word “sweetheart” will help put Logan’s eighteen-inch, mostly plush body at ease with our relationship status.
“I should tell you,” the waiter says under duress, “one of these Classic Milkshakes is poisoned.”
“Ken?!” the Kens said in unison.
“Kens, I understand that Malibu ’01 has made the need for Ken unity clear,” I said. The Kens were incensed. They had been tricked by me…the trickster.
The Kens looked to Malibu ’01’s clear blue eyes for guidance. I wondered how he’d reached this place in his life, so desperately allied to a movement decided by some pervert in an office and carried out by some pervert in a room full of dickless doll torsos. What was Malibu ’01’s story?
“I’m not afraid to die for the Kens,” he says, voice quavering, “but…” He looked at his comrades. Oops, did I say comrades? What I’m saying is the Kens are communist. Just kidding, I’m not. The word “comrades” is being used for its primary definition, “a companion who shares one’s activities or is a fellow member of an organization,” in this particular usage. “…but the other Kens can have what they want.”
The Kens, Logan and myself burst out into applause as new orders were placed and the table cleared of Classic Milkshakes. We began to talk about our opinions on the world around us, the suppressed opinions of the many Fashionista Barbies who weren’t present, their struggles, their joys, they failures. Because there were eight of us total and I was the only sentient one present, it was extremely expensive.
Before we felt, Beefcake Ken with Glasses caught my eye, trailing slightly behind his risk. “This was really cool, Jamie,” he said, lowering his glasses. “Let’s hang out again sometime.” I got his meaning, and felt down in a primal sense in spite of his dicklessness, but waved goodbye politely and returned to Logan, my rock.
“Babe, you’re amazing,” Logan says, his beady little eyes moist with admiration.
“I know, bitch,” I tell him, taking his doll hand. “I know.”
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.