By Patricia O'Connell
Barbie has been cast in many roles over the years: ice skater, astronaut, movie star, doctor, Presidential candidate (see BW Online, 5/04/00, "President 2000 Barbie: The White House or Bust"). But disloyal, man-eating, round-heeled hussy? Never.
Until maybe now. On Feb. 12, Mattel (MAT ) announced that Barbie -- the world's most famous doll -- and Ken, her companion of 43 years, were splitting up. Oh, many euphemisms were used: "They had grown apart." "Needed some time alone." "Were going their separate ways." "They would remain friends." The ironic timing of the announcement –- just 48 hours before Valentine's Day –- can't be lost on diehard romantics the world over who considered Mattel's iconic twosome as immortal as Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Scarlett and Rhett.
Immediately, the rumors started, and they were tantalizing: That a single Barbie, soon to be unleashed in her latest incarnation, Cali Barbie, would go over better. That Barbie had really left Ken for Blaine -- a boogie-board, boy-toy Aussie -- that Ken, at long last, was coming out of Barbie's dream closet.
As an unabashed Barbie fan of many years standing, let me address these issues one by one:
Being single better suits the Cali Girl doll. Nonsense. Having a significant other has never inhibited Barbie before. In fact, having a constant steady seemed to suit Barbie just fine. No one ever made snide comments about her being single or an old maid, but she was still free to pursue her various careers. In particular, Malibu Barbie, an earlier incarnation of a beach-loving babe, had no problem being attached to Malibu Ken. Truly, they were a golden couple.
Barbie has left Ken for Blaine. A little harder to dismiss. Who might not be tempted to look elsewhere for a little change after 43 years? And Blaine, by all accounts, is handsome, fun-loving, and looks a little looser than Ken –- like maybe he actually bends at the knees. There is something a little surprising about Barbie taking up with, well, someone who's not her all-American equal. But the strapping surfer from Oz is just exotic enough to be appealing, while not too much so as to be disconcerting.
Ken is gay. And Barbie oblivious? It's possible that more was behind those closet doors in Barbie's Dream House than her ever-expanding wardrobe. It wouldn't be the first time a beautiful woman has fallen for a gay man (witness Elizabeth Taylor's love for Montgomery Clift). Certainly, the highly groomed –- one might even say plastic-looking -- Ken had a metrosexual quality to him. And that was more than 40 years before the term had even been coined.
Society being what it was in 1961, coming out would have spelled career disaster for Ken. Plus, making Ken gay now imbues everyone with a certain hipness –- him, Barbie, Mattel –- and opens up all sorts of possibilities for new dolls and accessories. After all, it would hardly be fair to deny Ken companionship after all these years of being a couple.
There is, of course, another theory: That all this is just a marketing ploy –- a publicist's dream –- to boost interest in the Cali Girl and Blaine dolls. After all, Demi Moore –- a woman of just about the same age as Barbie –- has taken up with a boy toy, Ashton Kutcher, and it has done wonders to keep her front and center in the gossip columns. The on-again, off-again romance between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck had them in the headlines for months.
Still, such PR tricks can backfire. True, Demi has gotten tons of publicity with her new romance, but it hasn't done much for her career. And one could argue whether Bennifer has benefited from their pairing -- on-screen or off. One word here: Gigli.
Can we hope for a happier ending for Barbie and Ken? That she'll see Blaine as just a harmless fling? That Ken will realize his obsession with his appearance and clothes just makes him the Fab Five's perfect straight man? The truth is, it doesn't really matter. Barbie will be just fine, regardless of whether she ends up with Ken, Blaine, someone else –- or no one at all.
DIRTY LITTLE SECRET.
Ken was always extraneous –- for both Barbie and the girls whose imaginations she helped fire over the past half century (see BW Online, 4/30/02, "To Ruth Handler, a 21-Barbie Salute"). Sure, Mattel sold plenty of Bridal Barbies and elaborate wedding gowns -– and Ken was always the presumed groom. But blushing bride was just one of the many roles Barbie played. Mattel wisely gave her girlfriends to pal around with, careers to pursue, and fabulous clothes and accessories that made everything – and everyone -- else irrelevant.
Ken, to a large extent, was just another accessory. Just like her pink convertible or her beach house. Fun to have, but not absolutely necessary. Beside, here's the dirty little secret about Ken. He was never all that hot, and Barbie knew it. But that GI Joe –- now, he was a doll.
When not chronicling the love life or wardrobe changes of Barbie, O'Connell is an editor at BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton