Hey, doll, you need a real man

DEAN P. JOHNSON teaches English at Camden (N.J.) Academy Charter High School and is an adjunct professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

YOU CAN DRESS him up any way you want. Change his appearance to make him look like Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp or even John Wayne. Tough boy, homeboy, cowboy. It doesn’t matter. Ken is still a castrated man.

Ken has always lived in the shadow of the venerable girl next door. He is an afterthought, known for nothing but being a mere accessory, sold separately. Mattel is trying to bring him back after a hiatus, but with a lobotomized grin and submissive gaze, he is the epitome of role reversal. While Barbie has been a regular career gal with a plethora of jobs -- doctor, lawyer, flight attendant -- Ken seems to be nothing but a foppish playboy, a passenger in the dream car of life.

Generations of girls have had the opportunity to learn how to manipulate and emasculate the male species by not only giving Ken their own feminine qualities but by allowing Ken to be totally dominated by Barbie. But is that what women really want?

When I was growing up, the girls in my neighborhood all played with Barbie dolls; that category included Ken. We boys would not be caught dead playing with dolls. Even on a rainy Saturday afternoon when no other guys were around, boys couldn’t stand to be around their sisters’ Barbies.


We boys did not play with dolls. We played with action figures, and Ken was no action figure.

Action figures were real men: Geronimo, Gen. Custer, GI Joe. They were made from hard plastic and had cool things like a Kung Fu grip. Every nick, scratch, scrape and dent in the plastic was a badge of honor. Ken was soft plastic with shorts even your father wouldn’t wear. And he had accessories of his own: shoes, tennis racket, skates. Our action figures had accessories too. But while Ken’s accessories reflected Barbie’s interests, our action figures had rifles, handguns, knives and bows and arrows.

We’d take these action figures out on wild, dangerous and great adventures, inside and outside the house. There was war and crime and survival against nature. We once took Ken with us on one of these adventures. He was abducted by one of my friends from his sister’s bedroom. His arm fell off the first time he jumped out of a tree and hit the sidewalk. As mad as my friend’s sister was when she found Ken under her bed, armless as well as headless -- we thought it funnier that way -- she and her friends always seemed to want to play with us guys whenever we were having action-figure adventures.

A block from my house sat an empty lot filled with soft sand, where we could create forts and tunnels for our guys. The lot was sometimes the Sahara Desert and at other times served as the barren tundra.

Once in a while the girls would come onto the lot when we boys were there. They would bring their Barbies and, when we refused to let them play, they’d start to play right next to us, claiming we didn’t own the lot and if we boys bothered them, they’d tell. So we’d endure their presence. From time to time there was some crossover. It was usually GI Joe, who always seemed to have an eye for the dames.

And Ken was nowhere in sight. Ken, it seemed, was far less interesting than any of our action figures because Ken was someone girls could talk to, go shopping with, sip tea with; our guys were independent, unpredictable, tough. I wonder what girl didn’t drop Ken for GI Joe.

Several years ago, when my daughter was still steeped in Barbie play, I pulled my GI Joe out from my tub of old stuff that sits in the basement. His “realistic” hair was worn down on top, not unlike my own bald spot, and one boot was missing, but, other than that, he was in decent shape -- he even had his dog tag.

The moment I handed him to my daughter, the synthetic soldier was immediately thrust into a relationship -- I remember sitting through at least one wedding. Ken, who had arrived at our house at the same time Barbie did, was nowhere to be found. In fact, today, up on a shelf above her desk, sits Barbie with GI Joe by her side. Ken, I believe, is packed away in a storage container somewhere in the basement.


Although it is popularly assumed that Barbie will be getting back together with her once-beau Ken, I believe she could do a lot better. So could future generations of women.