Any reference to a "Ken doll," plastic or personified, immediately conjures one image: a smiling White man with a chiseled physique, beach-ready clothing and molded short hair. Mattel just complicated that decades-old image with the introduction of a new line of Ken dolls yesterday (June 20) featuring different body types, sartorial perspectives and—most importantly—skin colors.
GQ highlighted Barbie Fashionistas, the new collection of dolls that includes the freshly-diverse Kens, in an exclusive feature and accompanying video profile yesterday. Journalist Caity Weaver visited Mattel’s southern California headquarters to learn more about the dolls and processes behind their development. As she writes in the passage below, Mattel intentionally rendered most of the dolls in racially ambiguous colors:
The new crop of Kens will feature seven new skin tones (plus nine hairstyles and heads—"face sculpts" in company jargon). If a 3-year-old girl has a biracial Black and Latino father, Mattel wants to make it easier for her (or her parents) to find and purchase a corresponding Ken. But "biracial Black and Latino" can manifest itself in humans in innumerable shades and is just one possible racial combination.
"The colors aren’t designed for each specific doll," Barbie design VP Kim Culmone tells me in her [office] when I ask how her team determines which seven skin shades are worthy of a global audience. (Since 1982, Mattel has periodically released non-White versions of some existent Kens, but the company would not say which.) "They’re almost designed like a painting palette. So rather than saying, ‘This doll is Asian and now I’m picking his skin tone,’ it’s making sure we have a variety of light skin tones that cast a little bit yellow. Some that may cast a little pinker. Then moving to mid-range and going all the way into dark."
That said, at least one of the dolls—a Black man with cornrows—obviously depicts a man of color. Others feature darker skin. Weaver identifies one with glasses as "a beefy Asian man with 20/40 vision who frequently works out of doors."
Mattel’s latest Kens follow several Barbie collections, including one introduced in January with new body types and skin tones, aimed at diversifying the toy manufacturing giant’s iconic duo. Check out the new Kens on Barbie.Mattel.com, where they and the rest of the Barbie Fashionistas go on sale July 8.