Friday, September 30, 2005

Barbie and Ken

So my students and I have been discussing gendered messages in children's toys, and we got involved in a protracted discussion of Barbie. Barbie dolls always seem to provoke a strong response in students; whether it's the unrealistic body image conveyed, the ubiquitous pink displays in toy stores, or general discussions of playing with Barbie or not wanting to play with Barbie, she cannot be avoided in discussions of gender and toys.

But here's a new twist. What about Ken? What is Ken's role in the Barbie world? (One of my students says that Ken dolls are being replaced by Liam, but the question is still valid.)

One of my students made the point that Ken, by virtue of being relegated to the "girls' toys" section, is being framed as insufficiently masculine. He's not man enough to make it in the boys' toys, next to G.I. Joe and the superhero action figures, so the emmasculated Ken ends up hanging with the ladies in the Barbie section.

Interesting point. I, myself, never thought of Ken as especially effeminate -- he's not a bulked up as some of the "action figures" (e.g., boys' dolls), and he seems to have no particular goal in life other than hanging out in Barbie's dream house in his swim trunks, but it never occurred to me to question his masculinity (even though he, along with Barbie, lacks relevant genitalia on which to make sex distinctions).

But here's my thought. Barbie's world is one which is populated predominantly by women, and is suffused with women-identified activities (predominantly shopping and personal beautification, although there are some nurturing roles as well). A number of feminist theorists have noted that women on their own, without male supervision or primacy of male attachment, are perceived as dangerous and evoke strong social response. Hence the historical persecution of widows, lesbians, etc. -- if women can survive on their own, without men, that serves as a potential threat to patriarchy. So Barbie, although she adheres to gender role norms, could still serve to promote the image of an independent, self-sufficient woman who can achieve satisfaction without men...and that is a message that could be seen as very dangerous to provide little girls. Enter Ken. He serves to confirm her heterosexuality and the need for women to have relationships with men. He watches to make sure that she doesn't become too independent. He affirms the heteropatriarchal system.

So, what is it? Ken as emmasculated, or Ken as patriarch? You decide!

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