Early last year, Mattel launched a new line of Barbies that featured three different body types—petite, curvy and tall—as well as seven new skin tones in an effort for their dolls to be more inclusive and relatable. The new line caused Barbie sales to spike by an impressive 16 percent. This week, Mattel has released another reimagining of one of its most famous characters, Ken. So why is Playboy writing about Barbie dolls? Because one of the new Ken dolls has a man bun, and that says a lot about the state of masculinity in 2017. It’s all the more interesting when you consider that just this week, The New Yorker, a bastion of high-brow criticism and reportage on middling American culture, also featured a man bun on its cover, establishing the hair style as no longer a trend, but a legitimate marker of identity.
Man bun Ken is part of Mattel’s “Next Gen Ken” collection, which itself is part of a larger release known as Barbie Fashionistas. He too comes in three body types: slim, original and broad, the latter term being preferred over husky by several focus groups. (Let’s ignore the fact that husky Ken still has a six-pack.) The male dolls also come in seven skin tones, with different facial features, to represent racial diversity. And yes, racial stereotypes were definitely considered in the designing process, according to a lengthy investigation by GQ.
Aside from the man bun, Ken Carson—his legal name, in case you were wondering—also comes with corn rows and fades. Alas, there is no balding version. Talk about inclusivity. If I were really picky, I’d also add that there isn’t a redhead either, but I’m not that petty.
Since his introduction way back in 1961, Ken has represented the idealized American male form, just like Barbie has for the female form, instilling in the minds of young women that adult men should all possess the hairless bodies of brawny acton-film stars. More than 20 years ago, before the height of PC culture, a study found that only one in 50 men boast the same shredded physique as Ken. For Barbie, this figure for women was less than one in 100,000. So it’s interesting that, despite everyone knowing these dolls are unrealistic, Mattel only now decided to update them.
The range of new dolls are a commendable effort toward engendering more inclusive and realistic attitudes in children, even if the the release is, at its best, a sales ploy. This isn’t the first time Ken has undergone a makeover—he had an earring during his brief stint as a rockstar in 1992, which hello, just sounds so 1990s—but this is the first time several versions of the character have been manufactured. So what’s the big deal?
For one, this much is certain: the man bun is here to stay. Having caught on as a fad around 2014 with the help of Jared Leto, Colin Farell and Orlando Bloom, many social critics (ahem, bloggers) were quick to dismiss the hairstyle as cultural misapproproation of ancient Chinese soldiers. As soon as December 2015, website Mic published an article surmising the topknot’s demise, called “The Rise and Merciful Fall of the Man Bun.” Others postured that the man bun was causing early onset male baldness, because as soon as something becomes a trend, it’s the internet’s job to turn contrarian and stomp said trend dead.
But as unrealistic as Mattel’s doll have been for decades, they have arguably always been substantial symbols of the American zeitgeist. In 1965, five years before Apollo 13, Barbie became an astronaut. She became a United States Army officer in 1989 at the height of Desert Storm. And in 1992, when Hillary Clinton made her debut on the national political stage as First Lady, Barbie became president.
This woman has always been the star of the show—which is a great lesson in of itself for young women, right?—so it’s no surprise Ken’s achievements have paled in comparison. (Kids own seven Barbies for every one Ken.) But to suggest that 1992’s Rock Star Ken wasn’t rolled out in response to the rises of Nirvana, Green Day and Pearl Jam would be silly. Mattel’s products have always strived, in even the most miniscule way, to normalize the aspirations of children and reinforce the American dream—even if it’s a superficial dream, like having a shredded six-pack and owning a beach house.
Ken’s man bun then, and his corn rows and fade, do signal a shift in masculinity: that is, there’s no longer a singular definition. One only needs to look at Hollywood, long the gatekeeper and decider of what’s masculine and what’s not, for proof. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were the epitome of the idealized American male with their hairless, ripped and white features. In essence, they were Ken actualized. Their films raked in billions for years, but today, a more diverse cast of A-list players have taken over. What a leading man can look like has changed vastly, from Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart to Anthony Mackie and—wait for it—Gal Gadot.
Are we grasping at straws here in terms of what man bun Ken says about the modern American male? Perhaps. After all, when asked to describe Next Gen Ken’s personality, Mattel was skeptically reserved in its response, flatly telling GQ that he’s simply a “nice” and “solid” dude—qualities that are hardly notable or considered. For all we know, Next Gen Ken is based on famed asexual Ryan Seacrest. Personally, I can’t help but be reminded of this SNL sketch based on Asian American Barbie.
This much is true: since yesterday’s big reveal, the internet has had a heyday harping on this doll. So long live the power of the topknot—it’s here to stay. If sales do well, we should expect to see a Dad Bod Ken on shelves by 2020. In the meantime, catch up on some especially golden takes below, most of which envision the doll to be a sort of Bernie-supporting hipster snowflake, because everything—even toys—are politicized these days.
Man-bun Ken doll just interrupted me to tell me that Bernie would have won. pic.twitter.com/Mnu8pAXV7F— 𝕁𝕖𝕤𝕤𝕚𝕖 𝔻𝕖𝕒𝕟 (@NicCageMatch) June 20, 2017
The new “Man Bun” Ken doll comes with shirt, shoes, and keys to Barbie’s car that he’s driving until he “gets back on his feet again.” pic.twitter.com/gYmXwR9WEc— Ben Siemon (@BenjaminJS) June 20, 2017
I don’t even own Mattel’s new man bun Ken Doll but he already told me the dangers of processed food and how Bernie would have beaten Trump. pic.twitter.com/rjxQQFiEfI— Sully Sullivan (@Mikey_Sul) June 20, 2017
The unveiling of the new Man Bun Ken doll makes me think of this wildly inappropriate meme. pic.twitter.com/eGwsH8aB9Q— Laura (@Laura_Beth_02) June 20, 2017
Does man bun Ken doll also come with a Soul Cycle membership, vintage record player, and $50,000 in student loan debt? pic.twitter.com/ulEwGSxxb1— Emily Jashinsky (@emilyjashinsky) June 20, 2017
The Ken doll with the man bun comes with a bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s that it won’t shut up about.— Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke) June 20, 2017