by Mike McKeown
Recently, Mattel released a new version of the Ken doll. In this update, Mattel went to great lengths to be more inclusive and in doing so, they incorporated several different races, skin tones, and hair color. That is definitely long overdue. But somewhere along the way, one vital element was overlooked. What struck me immediately about Barbie’s long-time companion was how un-masculine each of the models looked. Each meticulously detailed and painted face, designed by incredibly talented artists, seemed to lack the characteristics that made them look…well…like men.
So what do Ken dolls show us about the overall picture of men in society? Well, what began as an effort to achieve equality for women appears to have deteriorated into an all-out war on men. Collateral damage in this cultural showdown seems to be almost everything pertaining to the classic ideal of what it means to be male. The lines separating men and women seem to be blurring more every day. With manliness taking a beating, the idea of the “real” man is, for future generations, almost unrecognizable.
Though many are only just recognizing the impact of this paradigm shift, it might surprise you to realize that this turn actually began a lot earlier than you might think. Looking at history, you can see three phases leading to the current cultural status.
First, the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries took men away from the home. This economic and societal explosion, though great for our country, removed fathers from the home. This created a void for an entire generation of young sons left at home. It ended up distancing these future men from their paternal role model during the vital formative years. According to the Art of Manliness, “The number of books mentioning manhood begins to precipitously rise during the 1820s, and then begins to tumble around the turn of the 20th century. These dates also roughly parallel the timeline of the Industrial Revolution.” *
The second phase was the feminist revolution which took root in the 1950s and 60s. This movement pushed back against authority of every kind. Business, government, and schools all became the enemy and as such, were labeled The Man. So at this point, it became the ‘cool’ thing to battle The Man. In doing this, we found society slowly chipping away and degrading manliness as a whole. With this message sweeping the country, there also grew an insistence on androgyny, or sameness, between men and women.
The third, most easily recognizable phase, was the sexual revolution. This began in the late 60’s, bloomed in the 70’s, and exploded in the 80’s. Part of this is due to the invention of the birth control pill, which gave women far more freedom over their own lives and sexual choices. It also removed the moral boundaries in sex and with this, we began to see a greater society of promiscuity and subsequent divorce.
For myself, I began to notice the decline while watching the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. In the show, the main character, Ray Romano, is portrayed as a loveable idiot. Throughout the course of every episode, Ray really has no real idea of what’s going on around him. This means he frequently screws something up and of course, he tries to hide it from his wife. An overarching theme of the show is that his wife is the ‘real’ parent and Ray is simply another kid in the family. This is only one example. If you look across television and film in recent years, there are very few fathers that are represented on television as masculine, let alone capable.
In the past few decades, we seem to have stopped being concerned with the entire concept of what it means to be a man. There are no more rites of passage into manhood, few books on the topic exist, and mentors appear to have vanished. Society offers no concrete ideals anymore as to what it is to be a man. We might offend people or make some segment of the population feel left out and we most certainly cannot do that! So young boys are left to their own devices when it comes to determining what it is to be a man. Without the guidance of previous generations, along with the concept of manliness being changed by society, it should come as no surprise that the new Ken dolls have begun to look so……unmanly.
*Borrowed from the Art of Manliness website.