Ken Who? -- Barbie's Beau? He's Just An Accessory

Let us put aside impeachment stuff and the Microsoft stock you could have bought before the split announcement.

Let us, instead, ponder The Meaning of Ken, and offer our sympathies to him. You know that eternal question, "What do women want?"

I was reading a recent wire-service story about a major event soon to take place. Barbie, yes, that Barbie, the world's most popular fashion doll with more than 1 billion sold, turns 40 this year.

Mattel, which markets the doll, is planning all kinds of celebrity-filled events. It's understandable. Every second, somewhere on Earth, two dolls from the Barbie collection are sold. In 1997, worldwide Barbie sales were $1.9 billion, which means Barbies equal the annual gross domestic product for a number of Third World countries.

I did a bit of research about the Barbie phenomenon, and something struck me.


The typical Barbie-owning girl has about 10 Barbies and maybe one Ken. Even at age 6, 7 or 8, as litle girls play-act Barbie going on a date, they've decided what value they put on Ken.

"Ken? Ken is an accessory. We don't know what else he is, except Ken. He's the guy who's around for Barbie to go out with," Marlene Mura is telling me from her home in Kenosha, Wis. She's the publisher of the 180,000-circulation magazine Barbie Bazaar, devoted to collectors.

The little girls grow up to be adult women. In their play-acting with the Barbie dolls, in which they have total control, what signals have they sent? This is the role to which Ken is relegated:

Ken is always smiling. Ken is always understanding. Ken is a true friend. Sure, Ken is kind of vapid-looking, but he cares about Barbie. Ken is willing to stand there and listen and listen and listen to Barbie rant and vent. Ken won't start watching ESPN when the conversation turns to feelings. Ken knows his place in the world is to always be there for Barbie. Ken doesn't have an ego. Ken doesn't mind that Barbie has had more than 75 careers, from rock star to presidential candidate, while he mostly hung around in the dorkiest imaginable outfits. Ken has good manners and doesn't point out that he's only 38, in contrast to the soon-to-be-middle-aged Barbie.

Ken tries to fit in Barbie's action world, even though he knows he's simply tagging along. A couple of years ago, Mattel brought out a military Barbie labeled "Top Gun No. 1." Ken, of course, had to settle for being "Top Gun No. 2."

You can even quantify the relative values of Ken and Barbie. A 1959 Barbie (the year she was first marketed) in good condition sells for $8,500 to $9,500. A 1961 Ken (the year he was introduced) goes for maybe $795.

In Palo Alto, Calif., there is the Barbie Hall of Fame, run by Evelyn Burkhalter, featuring more than 21,000 dolls.

"These are little pieces of plastic, and when little girls play with them, they're the boss. If they've had a bad haircut, you can be sure that Barbie gets a bad haircut. And if they've had trouble with boys at school, you can be sure that Ken will get it," Burkhalter said.

I am talking to Scott Arend, a Seattle writer and Barbie collector. I ask him if Ken is the forgotten doll in the Barbie world.

"He's more like the ignored man," Arend says. "He's the chronic nice guy who women know is a safe bet." Until something more exciting comes along.

A couple of years ago, there aired a classic Nissan 300ZX commercial. It showed a Barbie look-alike doll dumping a Ken look-alike when a G.I. Joe look-alike pulled up in a revved-up car. So long, Ken.

Arend remembers visiting friends whose child had some Barbie dolls.

In play-acting, the little kid had Barbie and Ken going to a McDonald's for burgers, where they were served by another Barbie doll. The first Barbie found the second Barbie so much more entertaining that she told Ken, "You know, Ken, I like her better! I'm going to go on a date with her now!"

What do the little girls who grow up to be adult women want?

They might keep an innocuous guy like Ken around, even date him and say they really, really do like him.

But I'm guessing that behind that blank plastic facade, Ken is crying on the inside.

He knows the tough truth. Nice, boring guys finish last.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: