Barbie has been problematic for little girls for just about as long as she’s been around. Right from the start, she was deemed too sexy and too mature for little girls to play with. But very little attention has been paid to Ken and how his image effects what young people think about men, women, their relationships and gender relations. While Barbie has her own problems, Ken is not short on his own.
At best, he’s a prop for Barbie. He’s there to rush to help her if she needs anything, he designs and builds things for her that, for the most part, she doesn’t need. Besides being Barbie’s boyfriend he doesn’t seem to have an identity, outside hobbies or even a life. But no one seems to notice that Ken’s character is so underdeveloped and lacking in any real depth. In fact, his devotion to his girlfriend and his inability to carve out his own life is seen as cute and endearing.
In the first episode that I’ll be looking at, Occupational Hazards, showcases all of Ken’s various issues with autonomy and identity and comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t need any of that, when he has Barbie as his girlfriend. The episode starts out with Barbie arriving back at the Dreamhouse carrying an armload of shopping bags. More things that she can try to cram into her closet, undoubtedly.
Ken jumps in, grabs the bags for her and opens the door to the Dreamhouse with his foot, pushing it open so that she can enter. Barbie thanks him for his attentiveness and laughs, “Oh Ken, it’s like you have some kind of super power that tells you when I need help.” Ken laughs off the silly idea that he has a special power devoted to knowing when his girlfriend needs help carrying her shopping bags.
But in the diary room, Ken confesses, “My ‘Barbie Sense’ tingles whenever she needs my super-powered boyfriend abilities.” Barbie sense? Super-powered boyfriend abilities? What? Not stopping even for a second, Ken adds, “With great power comes great responsibility.” His responsibility to carrying his girlfriend’s shopping bags. How does that fit the definition of the word “great” at all?
Ken leaves the Dreamhouse and he runs into Ryan, who has a habit of just showing up whenever he feels like it. Ryan asks him why Ken’s not at work. This is a really good question for everyone involved in this show, to be honest. In five season of the show, no one seems to have a real job or go to school. But anyway, a lack of a job shouldn’t be a problem for Ken because no one else seems to need or have one. But Ken decides that this is a test of his manhood and he has to pass it. He declares, “If a real man has a real job, then I’m getting a real job.”
How fragile is his masculinity that one off-hand comment from someone that he doesn’t even like will cause him to change his life in such a significant way? He decides that he has to get a real job because Ryan thinks that real men have real jobs? Ryan doesn’t have a job. Does that mean that he’s not a real man?
Regardless, in the next scene, Ken has a new job as a lifeguard. He acts like an over-grown hall monitor. He tells a child not to get into the water as it’s only been 15 minutes since he’s eaten. He chastises someone for running. He suggests a beach goer finds a bathing suit with more coverage. But just as Ken seems to be settling into his new job, his Barbie Sense goes off and he abandons his job without a second thought and runs back to the Dreamhouse.
Thinking that Barbie was trying to get the lid off of a jar of pickles, Ken quickly unscrew it for her. Barbie then tells him that she had already gotten her pickle, she was just screwing the lid back on. It’s never explicitly stated, but it seems that Ken was fired from his job for leaving in the middle of his shift without telling anyone. But not to be deterred, Ken quickly finds a new job.
Ken is now a high-fashion photographer. He clicks the shutter, instructs his subject, and walks around like he knows what he’s doing. A shot eventually reveals that he’s photographing a bowl of fruit. Something he must be pioneering as I was under the impression that fruit wasn’t exactly something that people wanted photographs of. Of course, his Barbie Sense starts to tingle and he’s off!
He arrives at the Dreamhouse to see Barbie screaming about a spider. Ken valiantly puts a massive hole in one of the Dreamhouse’s walls trying to murder it. The threat vanquished, Barbie hugs him and declares, “My hero! Thanks, Ken!” She then realizes that the “spider” was a piece of sweater fuzz the entire time.
Again, no one explicitly states it, but it would seem that Ken was fired from his job as a fruit photographer. But not to worry, Ken appears in the next scene as an astronaut ready to go into space. How he got into the space program, why he was doing nothing with the training and education needed to go into space, is never answered. But just as Huston is counting down to send him into space, Ken’s Barbie Sense goes off.
He runs from the shuttle just as it’s launching with Houston exclaiming, “Not again!” as he does. The shuttle takes off and without anyone to pilot it, it crashes into a satellite. How many millions of taxpayer dollars were just wasted is never addressed. Nevertheless, Ken arrives at the Dreamhouse just as Barbie’s putting on her favorite movie, Sad and Romantic, the Sequel. Good thing Ken came prepared with popcorn, soda and chocolate for the viewing. Forget that whole going into space thing. His girlfriend is about to watch a chick flick. He clearly had more important things to do.
As they settle down to watch the movie, Barbie declares, “It’s like you know me better than I know myself!” After the movie, Ken leaves the Dreamhouse and contemplates his life. Ken realizes that he’s never going to have a real job if he keeps having to leave it to help his girlfriend out with things that she could and should be dealing with on her own. Just then, Ryan shows up and asks if Barbie is home. Ken tells him that she is and he heads off to harass her, yet again.
Suddenly, Ken’s Barbie Sense goes off and he stands, realizing that being Barbie’s boyfriend IS his calling. He doesn’t need a “real” job or an identity or hobbies of his own when he has a girlfriend who can occupy all of his time. Ken grabs Ryan and ejects him from the Dreamhouse.
He smiles at the camera and declares, “Yep. And it’s a pretty good job.” Meanwhile, Ryan lays in an awkward position on the ground, complaining about his spleen being ruptured. If only he had someone with Ryan Sense that could come to his rescue.
But anyway, we worry about little girls seeing helpless teenage princess and wanting to emulate them, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking of the fact that for every princess, there’s a prince that is just as flat and emotionless as she is. His job is to save her. He has no choice in the matter. His biology is his destiny, just like hers. If we want to rid our daughters of these tropes, we must be prepared to do the same for our sons.
In the next episode, The Ken Den, Ken and his doll counterparts show us just how badly they’re suffering from gender stereotypes. The episode starts out in the Barbie Boutique where Ken has just finished “touching up” some paint on one of the walls. What he has actually done is paint a life-size version of the Birth of Venus, only with Barbie, wearing a full Grecian robe.
All around the Boutique, the female customers are shopping for clothes, purses, scarfs, and accessories, while their boyfriends, stand around, exhausted, embarrassed, and listless. Barbie looks around at the poor men who are literally falling over out of boredom and tells her boyfriend, “Guess some guys don’t like shopping with their girlfriends as much as you do, Ken.”
In the dairy room, Ken confesses that he once went on a 38 hour mall trip with Barbie and found that you can have too much food court. He curls up into the fetal position as he says this. It seems Ken is so devoted to his girlfriend that he’s not even assertive enough to tell her that he doesn’t want to go shopping for 38 straight hours.
Ken goes back into the fitting rooms and suggests that her turns one of the unused rooms into a waiting area for the guys. Barbie thinks that this a great idea and Ken starts work on it immediately. Sometime later, Barbie is greeting a couple entering the Boutique when the male part of the couple rushes back to the fitting room area. Hearing a commotion, Barbie goes to investigate.
She discovers that Ken has set up a man cave, complete with a foosball table that turns into a pool table and an air hockey table. There are recliners and a flat-screen TV. He has a grill going with burgers on it. Ken mentions that the rib-eating contest is going to start in just a few minutes. Barbie surveys the room and announces, “Wow, Ken! This place is so… guy friendly!”
Of course, because masculinity can be summed up by football, burgers, and air hockey. As confining as Barbie’s roles for girls are, her roles for boys are just as bad. Ken, of course, is completely oblivious to just how limited his pink-painted world is. He announces that his waiting area has been dubbed the Ken Den. Naturally, he stops to ask Barbie if she’s okay with what he’s done to the fitting room. Barbie is delighted at the progress and is also interested in some of the ribs that Ken has been grilling.
In the diary room, Barbie is sitting next to a trophy with ribs on the top, eating some of the ribs herself. She asks if they can finish the interview later as she’s so busy eating. While it’s refreshing to not only see a fashion-obsessed girl eating, but eating something that might get a stain on her perfect, pink dress, this is as progress as this entire episodes gets.
Back at it! In the Den, Ken walks over to talk to Ryan, who is snacking on his own gigantic rack of ribs. Ken asks him how he likes the Den and Ryan says that he loves it and Barbie is a genius. When Ken points out that this was his idea, not Barbie’s, Ryan completely changes his tune. “Eh, the place kind of tacky. And the ribs are fatty and the portions are way too small.”
In the Boutique a few days later, Nikki is trying to get to a dressing room to try on some skinny jeans, only to find a huge line of guys waiting to get into the Ken Den. A guy quickly tells Nikki that she’s not cutting in line as he’s been waiting for 2 hours. Nikki, being the sassy black character, immediately informs him to, “Move your plastic or you’ll end up face down in the bargain bin.”
Meanwhile, Barbie has just finished arranging a display of purses and accessories on the main floor, just in time for a guy catching a football to crash into it and send her precious items flying. The man doesn’t even stop as he continues playing whatever game he was involved in. Just then, Ryan exits the Ken Den carrying another rib trophy and announces to Barbie that he just won the the wing eating contest. He then wipes his still dirty hand on a pair of white Capris that are on display. When Barbie is about to voice an objection, Ryan finishes wiping his hand and walks off.
Nikki approaches Barbie and tells her the simple truth, “The Ken Den is a disaster. Not hatin’, just statin’.” Oh, sassy black girl, were would we be without your humor and directness? Probably all like Barbie; entirely too white to assert herself or say anything that might upset someone. Anyway, Ken appears out of nowhere and this exchange happens.
Ken: Barbie, if the Ken Den is causing you trouble, it’s gone like that! (Snaps his fingers.)
Barbie: But Ken, you don’t have to —
Ken: I’m on it!
Ken then runs to fix the problem that Barbie didn’t even tell him that she had. Barbie, for all of her careers and her age, is still unable to be direct, deal with a problem and communicate properly. She has to rely on Ken with his Barbie Sense to know what she wants when she’s unable to tell him herself.
Barbie comes to see what Ken has done to the Den and discovers that he’s bricked in the doorway. Then she realizes that he’s trapped some of the guys that were enjoying the Den inside. Barbie tells him that the men are trapped, but Ken points out that they have a big-screen TV and enough ribs to last them to the play offs. And, of course, because men don’t have anything in their lives other than meat and football, the guys who were screaming about being trapped, suddenly realize how lucky they are.
Just then, a group of other guys who are inside the Boutique realize how awesome it would be to be trapped inside with the ribs and the football games, so they start pounding on the wall saying things like, “We wanna be trapped!” And that’s the end of the episode. No word on what happens to the poor men trapped inside the Boutique with no ribs or sports games on TV.
Overall, neither gender comes across as fully-realized, fleshed out or complex in these videos. Girls like to shop, guys like football. There isn’t much else to gender, is there? How difficult would it have been to show a girl who was bored with shopping or a guy who was in love with a pink scarf? Probably about as difficult as it would be to show a girl with short hair.
Although it’s hardly fair to lay the future of gender expression on an online TV show, but this is just one small facet that builds up society’s idea of what makes a man and what makes a woman. These children are watching the shows for fun and entertainment, but in the process, they are being taught about confining societal rules for acceptable gender behavior. If one character could defy some gender norms, that would be a step in the right direction. But none of them do. Ever.
To read all of the Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse articles, click here.