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Ken, Barbie's beleaguered boyfriend, turns 50 years old

Ken is about to turn 50.

His gleaming pectorals are still tan and butter-smooth. A fleshy patch endures where his man parts should be, covered now by faux underwear. And he still spends his time chasing a salty blond vixen.

That Barbie. She gets all the glory. Ninety percent of American girls own a Barbie. She has video games, clothing lines, DVDs, books. Her perky name is venerated.

"She is our heroine," said Lisa McKnight, vice president of marketing at Mattel. "She can do and be anything, and so we never want anything to narrow her scope."

Ken has stood on the periphery, physically and figuratively unable to grow a pair.

In 2004, when Mattel noticed that little girls were less boy-crazy, the couple split. Barbie started hanging around an orange lothario named Blaine. Ken all but disappeared, replaced by generic "Prince Charming" and "Surfer Dude" dolls.

Naturally, Ken had a mid-life crisis. He started wearing fedoras, tweeting and reading Esquire. And before Valentine's Day this year, he launched a campaign to win Barbie's heart. Mattel put up billboards in New York and Los Angeles, took out ads in magazines.

BARBIE, I WANT YOU BACK.

That's so Ken.

• • •

Ken Carson (who knew?) was born March 11, 1961. Named after the son of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliott Handler, Ken was the perfect boyfriend, a tool for girls to act out dream scenarios. Skinny, pale, dopey. Short hair and shorter shorts. He stood a half-inch taller than Babs. He was $3.50 back then. You can still buy a simple Ken at Target for $5.44, or a fancy one for $20.

Ken changed with the culture, and the 1970s bore a porn-like incarnation, beefy and tan with yellow hair and Crisco shine. He got underwear for the first time (briefs, not boxers). In the 1980s, we got Exercise Ken and Dream Date Ken, as well as the first African-American Ken.

The 1990s brought Totally Hair Ken, who looked like a wax Vanilla Ice, and Florida Vacation Ken, with teal swim trunks and a mullet. Today's Ken is video-game chic, with a slender torso and hair that has been Biebered.

Ken has had dozens of jobs, from actor to Olympian to pilot to 2009's controversial "Sugar's Daddy" which Mattel coyly called a nod to his pet West Highland White Terrier, Sugar. But Ken never drew the same attention — good or bad — as Barbie.

Jef Beck knows. When his sister got a New Good Lookin' Ken doll in 1970, Beck was immediately drawn to it. The mustard Nehru shirt, the fantasy of it all. Now 46, he has more than 200 Ken dolls, which he chronicles on his website, manbehindthedoll.com.

"I was looking on the Internet for anything about Ken and there was nothing," said Beck, who lives in Iowa. "He will always be an accessory to Barbie. I feel that it's my job, in a way, to pull him out of that accessory status."

Opponents have derided Barbie for endorsing unrealistic proportions and bad priorities. But add Ken, and there grows a subtle subtext.

Barbie has never been defined by a man, not even one with a mouth that's permanently closed. She tried on wedding gowns but never got married, even in the early '60s when being a wife was paramount for women.

"The aspiration was for little girls to really play out being that bride and being in that beautiful dress and feeling like a princess and having a man on her arm, but it wasn't to literally become a married person," said McKnight. "The fantasy is the aspiration."

Ken was a playmate designed to cart Barbie around in a Corvette, good for a few face bonks in the doll house. Barbie got fancy new gowns every Christmas and rested high on the collectible shelf as her owners aged.

Ken sat naked in the toy bin.

• • •

The new Ken won't be squelched.

In January, a reality show debuted on Hulu.com called Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend. In 2010, Ken appeared in Toy Story 3 cocky with his own dream house, but Pixar teased his second fiddle status. In a Toy Story 3 bonus video, Ken talks to a reporter:

Guy: "It must be difficult to be a guy that's a girl's toy."

Ken: "That's so … Somebody said that?"

Guy: "Well, it's well-known that most Ken owners are girls.

Ken: "I'm a guy's toy, okay? I'm kind of a role model. A manly role model."

Guy: "So, it doesn't bother you that on your own box, your name is eight times smaller than Barbie's?"

Ken: "Next question."

On Valentine's Day this year, Barbie took Ken back, cementing his status as the perfect boyfriend. It's timely considering the newest Ken doll, Sweet Talkin' Ken. You record your voice, and he repeats it back in a deep register.

He tells you whatever you want to hear.

Ken, Barbie's beleaguered boyfriend, turns 50 years old 02/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 3:31am]

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