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Barbie has adapted to the idea that all women are not the same. Now Ken has too.

Why that's good for boys.

Mattel’s new Ken doll line features Barbie’s iconic boyfriend in different shapes, colors, and hair styles.
Mattel

After 56 years at Barbie’s side, Ken is getting a makeover.

Mattel announced this week that it’s expanding its fleet of Mr. Rights, offering 15 variations of Ken dolls in three body types, seven skin tones, eight hair colors, and nine hairstyles. Like Barbie’s own makeover last year, which busted the mold on her shape, size, and color, Ken will follow suit for a long-overdue transition into the 21st century.

Translated, Ken — not his friends, distant relatives, or neighbors — will look like the men all around us. Doll purchasers can choose to buy Ken with a fade or man bun; a multiracial, Asian, or Latino Ken; a broad-chested, slimmed-down, or “fit” Ken. And just like the Ken of yesterday, he can be a lawyer, a garbage man, a model.

The release of the broadened Ken line coincides with the introduction of 25 additional Barbie dolls that will join more than 100 diverse dolls and looks launched for Barbie’s Fashionistas line since 2015.

Overall, the announcement is in line with Mattel’s larger public commitment to making toys for the modern era — a commitment that’s seen the company shift away from outdated messaging about attractiveness, opportunity, and success. For decades, Barbie was a vision of exceptionalism that seemed to exclude everyone who wasn’t unrealistically attractive, fit, and white (or at least brown with otherwise white features). Now Mattel’s latest makeover is helping the company rebrand 58 years of marketing that largely defined diversity through a range of hair colors.

Of course, “new” Ken will also offer a range of hair colors, but from waist dimensions to eye shape accentuation, the male doll line’s expansion is more than just a dye job. It’s an evolution.

“Evolving Ken was a natural evolution for the brand and allows girls to further personalize the role they want him to play in Barbie’s world,” said Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager for Barbie, in the statement.

McKnight’s statement reinforces the idea that the impact of the new Kens will still largely benefit young girls, and there’s ample reason to both believe and rejoice over that. Whether it’s redefining the very idea of male attractiveness (something long determined by white male features) or normalizing the body types, races, or styles of people around them, girls can now choose a Ken that better reflects multiple communities and identities. But it’s also very clear that boys can benefit — even if not always directly — from the dolls as well.

Old Ken serves as a reminder that all boys need diverse representation

Pop culture is one of the most accessible influencers of identity formation, and it’s well reported how media can negatively impact the way girls and young women see themselves. After viewing advertising campaigns and commercials, a 2007 study reported that women increased their belief in the importance of attractiveness and decreased their personal body satisfaction. Furthermore, this negative relationship between representation and self-image has been linked to the media’s influence on perceptions of social reality and happiness — things the Barbie brand, with all its dream houses, occupations, and “perfect boyfriends,” also influences.

But boys — especially boys of color — can have a similar negative relationship with media, self-esteem, body image, and identity formation. For example, an Indiana University study released in 2012 determined that black and white girls, as well as black boys, experienced a hit to their self-esteem after watching extended amounts of television. In fact, white boys were the only children who received a confidence boost from the images they saw on television. The researchers found that the lack of identity ideals for white girls and black children is compounded since kids generally spend so much time in front of the television.

But the boost of self-esteem for white boys should come as no surprise considering that the “Inclusion or Invisibility” report from the University of Southern California found that “across the 11,306 speaking characters evaluated, 66.5 percent were male and 33.5 percent were female,” while 71.7 percent of characters whose races could be determined turned out to be white. Most of our pop culture figures — like that of the old, mostly white Barbie line — ascribe success, power, attractiveness, wealth, and worth of attention to particular characters with particular sets of traits. They are often men, but they are also often not men of color either.

In Media, Gender, and Identity: An Introduction, author David Gauntlett concluded that the imagery and content of magazines can promote self-confidence when it comes to boys and men through indirect messages about ways to live, be happy, and be successful.

“Television programmes, pop songs, adverts, movies and the Internet all ... provide numerous kinds of 'guidance',” Gauntlett writes. “[Magazines] offer some reassurance to men who are wondering, 'Is this right?' and 'Am I doing this OK?’” In short, they can reinforce a stronger management of self-identity and, although not directly “advice giving,” implicate ways of living, happiness, and success.

In short, as a figure of our pop culture imagery, Ken is a role model. Boys, if they aren’t playing directly with Barbie, are playing with toys that are on the shelves next to Barbie. They are potentially seeing Ken in commercials, on shelves, and in their homes, driving Corvettes, being a lawyer, and getting married.

So whether we realize it or not, Ken’s presence is sending messages about confidence, attractiveness, and success. With this newly expanded Ken line, now all boys can receive them.

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