I’m Just Ken: The History of the Ken Doll

Original Ken Doll Mattel
Mattel/Newsmakers/Getty Images
Mattel/Newsmakers/Getty Images

In the new Barbie film, Ryan Gosling‘s Ken muses in the catchy tune “I’m Just Ken,” “Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?” Perhaps Ken has always been number two to the iconic Barbie, but he certainly has a long and nostalgic history of his own. Ken, whose full name is actually Kenneth Sean Carson, hit stores in March 1961, just two years after Barbie was released. Created by Ruth Handler, she named the doll after her son, Kenneth Handler. Her daughter, Barbara was the inspiration for Barbie. So, siblings inspired the dolls that are meant to be in love? Odd.

Barbie, Ken doll Ryan Gosling 2023

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Handler created Ken after consumers complained to Mattel that Barbie needed a beau. Handler and designer Charlotte Johnson made him just half an inch taller than Barbie and advocated for one thing that got repeatedly shot down by Mattel. They wanted him to have genitalia, unlike Barbie. If Mattel shot down the idea of a penis, they wanted him to at least have a “bulge,” but alas Ken’s downstairs is as smooth and genitalia-free as Barbie’s.

The very first Ken doll seems to have the job of “beach,” as he wears a red bathing suit and sandals. Despite the new movie’s claims, the doll did hold several occupations over the years, just not as many as Barbie. He has been an astronaut, chef, lifeguard, country western singer, and of course… beach bum.

TOY STORY 3, from left: Ken (voice: Michael Keaton), Barbie (voice: Jodi Benson), 2010

Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

In the early years, Ken and Barbie were America’s perfect couple. Apparently, they broke up in 2004 as part of a marketing campaign. Not long after, Barbie started dating Blaine, a Ken-inspired doll. In 2006, Ken got a much-needed makeover, in an attempt to win back Barbie. Mattel announced that the couple did indeed get back together, as part of the marketing for Toy Story 3. Seriously, do two dolls need such a romantic backstory?


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The best-selling Ken doll in history is also the most controversial. In 1993, Earring Magic Ken was released, with Ken sporting a silver hoop earring and platinum blonde-streaked hair. It was discontinued after six months but some say it is the best-selling because it is so popular with collectors these days. Yet another controversial Ken was released in 2010, this time marketed toward nostalgic adults. Sugar’s Daddy Ken, complete with an older, gray-haired look came with a dog named Sugar and a Palm Beach-inspired fashion look. Despite being Barbie’s sidekick, Ken continues to be popular, especially after the successful new film.


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What’s your take on Ken? Do you own any of the nostalgic or even controversial versions of the doll? Let us know in the comments!

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