Native Writes: The changing complexion of play

Today’s Associated Press reports the effort by Mattel toy maker to redesign Barbie’s 56-year-old “boyfriend,” Ken.

Ken has been Barbie’s main accessory for that many years, though she’s an older “woman.”

There will be 15 new “looks” including seven skin tones. Ken will be slim, broad and original. He will have man buns, corn rows and bleached blond hair.

Barbie was “remade” about one year ago to make her more like the general population. She is petite, tall or “curvy” with long hair, dyed hair, an “Afro,” a very short cut — and a choice of skin tones.

The Barbie doll was created by Ruth Handler for the Mattel company in 1959. I wasn’t interested. Other girls were, though, despite Barbie’s dimensions that would have made her a freak in real life. Her feet were perpetually shaped to wear spike heels and she was simply tall and skinny. Just as “Twiggy” was blamed for teen anorexia, Barbie shouldered some of the blame.

Efforts were made to involve boys in the business.

My sons had action figures in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. GI Joe was born in camouflage, military dress uniforms and combat gear. He had a spiked burr cut and even an eye patch. The War in Vietnam created him.

There were also wild west action figures, complete with boots, chaps, leather vests and firearms. My sons had several.

One summer afternoon, the boys had their GI Joes and wild west figures in a box and were headed out the front door. I asked them what was up and they said the “guys” were going down the street to “beat the s—t out of Ken,” who belonged to a neighbor girl.


“Ken’s just a girl in pants. He doesn’t have a PP.”

I grabbed a GI Joe and removed his pants. “And he does? Put your toys away and we will discuss your language.”

None of the dolls was anatomically correct. I’m not sure whether the new Ken is or not.

Mattel is making the redesign due to plummeting toy sales. Ken’s debut should be completed by Christmas.

The buyers will likely be collectors. Attracting children will be an uphill battle, since many children are hooked on hand-held electronics.

A law has been proposed limiting purchase of electronics to persons aged 13 and above. The devices are in too many hands to make it effective and I wonder how it would be enforced.

Unless the persons proposing the law create, fund and support things for children to do, especially in small towns and rural areas, I know the days of my childhood and certainly the days when my sons engaged in imaginative play will never return.

Buy a Barbie, collect a Ken and be sure to dust them regularly.