I follow the usual people on Twitter: Michael Jackson’s eight-year-old son “Blanket,” Liberace’s former companion Scott Thorsen, ex-1970s Playboy centrefold/country singer Barbi Benton. Oh, and Ken doll Ken Carson.
Ken was pumped this week about the Super Bowl. He is a carefree dude who is way into boarding, the band Cake (“Where have they been the last 10 years?”), Malibu and hot chicks in “full pink gear.”
Suddenly alert to the wide world of social networking and the concomitant preternatural maturity of girls, Mattel has slammed the Net with a Ken and Barbie site (barbieandken.com) and a number of pages for the 50-year-old teen lovers estranged since 2004. Its pre-Valentine’s Day campaign asks Net users to help Ken win back his girlfriend.
The company has, further, introduced yet another Ken doll, who now looks much less like a thinner George Michael, or a better-structured version of Hollywood Squares comic Paul Lynde. His hair is a windswept, surfer mullet; he has ripped arms and shredded abs. And he speaks.
“Sweet Talking Ken” records one’s voice then repeats the words in three different voices, the best of which is a sexy Barry White-ish purr.
You may find me perverse when I tell you that I have my own STK say, “Oooh, girl, that’s it. Touch the vacancy in my pants!” but I assure you that, as a child, I would have said far worse. Because girls, pre-tween girls, use Barbie, and to a far lesser extent, Ken, as navigational tools in the repulsive, oddly attractive sea that is one’s early, basic sense of sex.
My best friend created a Barbie sex dungeon as a child, complete with paddling erasers and bondage twine. I was asked to leave a friend’s house after her mother overheard me insisting that adults meet in the nude for dates.
Perhaps the American writer A.M. Homes captures pre-adolescent psychosexuality best in her story A Real Doll, in which a boy purloins, and has wild, highly inventive sex with, his little sister’s Barbie. Meanwhile, the sister tortures and disfigures Barbie daily because, as Barbie informs the boy, “[She] owns me.”
Mattel has never so much as suggested that its mutable, but always pneumatic, bendy, top-heavy babe is anything more than a nice girl like Betty Cooper of the Archie comics, or girl detective Nancy Drew without the sleuthing smarts. Without any smarts to speak of, in truth: Her (“Plastic is Fantastic!”) Twitter site is a nightmare best understood by stalwarts of pure, old-school camp (while Ken’s are dull, calculated stabs at conventional masculinity).
And her Facebook page (which almost two million people “like”) is an instance of acute vacuity. On the same page is a huge “Love-O-Meter,” which asks if she should “Take Ken Back?”
Maybe Mattel is asking us to take this tired old couple back into our imaginations.
In the early 1990s, Barbie enjoyed a major renaissance. There was controversy: In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie emerged and said, truthfully, “Math class is tough” and “I love shopping.”)
This agitated the same second-wave feminists who for years equated girls playing with Barbies with juggling hand grenades.
Conversely, Lucinda Ebersole edited Mondo Barbie, a huge collection of fiction and poetry about the doll; the great American poet David Trinidad published heart-wrenching formal poems about her accessories; and innumerable artists and critics expressed new positions about the doll.
Much of the frenzy was simple trending; much was ardent cult-speak. Look on Flickr and you will see any number of photographic masterpieces: one of the best is a carefully staged still photo of Barbie-as-Lady Gaga, in the middle of a wild mosh pit, fishnets torn, one silver-pasty’d breast exposed.
Barbie observers like to theorize about her role in popular culture and early childhood education; Barbie fans just like to dress her in abbreviated couture and touch her poly hair and bite her feet.
A collector friend tells me that many of the dolls he buys have tiny bite marks on the arches. “Why do you girls do that?” he asked me, fractiously. “It’s hard to explain,” I told him, remembering the feel of the slippery foot; the taste of the plastic tendon: fantastic! Likely because I owned her.
Unlike the pee babies I loathed, Barbie – the kind of lady Tom Jones sings about – seemed always on the verge of revving up the camper and taking off: “Stay!” the bites seemed to say.
Ken was always lying on a pile of clothes, on a trash heap of her cast-offs until his stud services were required.
This new talking, Tweeting Ken is doomed.
Why no Sweet Talking Barbie? Because even Mattel knows girls shouldn’t talk the way she would, given half a chance.