For most of his existence, Ken has lived in the shadow of his tiptoed better half – functioning exclusively as arm candy for a Barbie with myriad careers and ambitions. That is until this summer when director Greta Gerwig’s smash hit elevated the boy toy to bubble-gum-pink stardom.
Since the movie’s release, Ken has spawned memes and inspired merch. His ballad, “I’m Just Ken,” has been streamed more than 88 million times on Spotify. And his wardrobe – from a neon roller-skating fit to a Sylvester Stallone-inspired fur coat – not only became Halloween inspiration but also sparked the trendy “Kencore” aesthetic.
But, alas, it was simply not “Kenough” for the National Toy Hall of Fame. Though Ken was chosen as one of 12 nominees up for induction, Barbie’s sidekick lost out to baseball cards, Cabbage Patch Kids, the Fisher-Price Corn Popper and Nerf foam toys.
As Ryan Gosling’s platinum-haired character put it: “Is it (Ken’s) destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?”
The National Toy Hall of Fame – founded in 1998 and acquired three years later by the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York – each year inducts toys that “have inspired creative play and enjoyed popularity over a sustained period.” The selections are made based on votes from an expert committee and the public. Usually only three toys are honored each year, but in celebration of the Toy Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary this year, fans could vote for a fourth inductee from a list of the “Forgotten Five” – toys that had been nominated multiple times but failed to make the cut.
When Ken was announced as a finalist in September, he was lauded for having “consistently reflected the times with his outfits and sparked conversation about popular culture, sexuality, acceptance, play, and gender roles.” It was teased that he had a shot at joining his on-again, off-again girlfriend, who was inducted in 1998.
“This may have been the year of ‘Barbie’ at the box office, but perhaps Ken will share some of the spotlight by getting inducted into the hall? Only time will tell!” Christopher Bensch, the museum’s chief curator, said in a news release.
The first three toys inducted this year were the baseball cards, Cabbage Patch Kids and Nerf foam toys. The Fisher-Price Corn-Popper beat out My Little Pony, Pez dispensers, pogo sticks and Transformers for the fourth slot reserved for forgotten toys.
Ken popped into existence in 1961 – two years after Barbie – and was initially sold for $3.50. The doll’s first iteration came with itty-bitty red swim trunks, a towel and cork sandals. (Yes, even then, his job was “just beach.”)
His origin story – at least according to Mattel’s first Ken ad – began at a dance. Barbie, wearing a chic gown and fur stole, “felt that this was to be a special night” as Ken, dressed in a tuxedo, silently gazed at her from afar. Then, boom: The two blonds with anatomically impossible proportions met eyes, setting off a love affair that has gone on without a hitch ever since – except for that time Barbie briefly dumped him in 2004 for Blaine, a boogie-boarding Aussie.
Since the ’60s, Barbie has become an icon, celebrated for empowering children to believe they can be anything but criticized for reinforcing impossible beauty standards. She’s had more than 250 careers – from cheerleader to robotics engineer to president of the United States — rocked hundreds of different looks and moved into multiple Dream Houses. Meanwhile, Ken is “just Ken,” as the movie’s tagline goes – or a “drip with seriously abridged genitalia who wasn’t very important in (Barbie’s) life,” author M.G. Lord wrote in her 2004 book, “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.”
”Ken is a gnat, a fly, a slave, an accessory of Barbie,” Lord wrote. “Barbie was made perfect: her body has not evolved dramatically with time. Ken, by contrast, was a blunder: first scrawny, now pumped-up, his ever-changing body is neither eternal nor talismanic.”
That reputation has befallen Ken over the years – to the point that it became a punchline in “Toy Story 3,” Ken’s highest-profile role before Gerwig’s “Barbie.” In the movie, Mr. Potato Head, a tuber with detachable body parts, confronts a Ken who had joined forces with an evil plush toy, telling him: “You ascot-wearing pink-noser! You’re not a toy, you’re an accessory! You’re a purse with legs!”
Being known as a purposeless, forever sidekick might have spoiled his chances with the National Toy Hall of Fame. As the Bergen Record’s Bill Ervolino wrote: “Ken has certainly achieved icon status and he gets points for longevity. But, he isn’t particularly innovative. And he doesn’t necessarily foster learning, creativity or discovery, either.”
But the door might not be completely shut. Toy Hall of Fame spokesman Shane Rhinewald told the Record that Ken had won points for his longevity and recent stardom.
What will it take for the Toy Hall of Fame “to see the man behind the tan and fight for” Ken?
If Ken’s journey in “Barbie” is any hint, then perhaps he’s now evolved past the point of caring about the snub. In the beginning of the flick, Ken has no real purpose or life outside of Barbie. His search to fill the void of existence leads him to import the real world’s patriarchy into Barbieland, establishing a “Kendom” of motorcycles, leather and horses galore that ultimately fails.
He finally figures out that he’s “Kenough” without his gal – he doesn’t need more validation. Not from Barbie, and certainly not from the National Toy Hall of Fame.