NEW YORK – On and off the big screen, it's Barbie's world and Ken is just living in it.
As reflected in Greta Gerwig's blockbuster movie that tackles the legacy Mattel's famous doll, Barbie has always been more popular than Ken. For every Ken doll sold today, there’s generally eight to 10 Barbies sold, according to Jim Silver, a toy industry expert and CEO of review site of TTPM.
It's unclear if Warner Bros' “Barbie,” which was also co-produced by Mattel, will increase Ken production and sales. But Silver noted that the movie “gave Ken more attention than Ken has received" in decades.
Ken was first introduced back in 1961, two years after Barbie hit store shelves. But he hasn't had nearly the same impact on the Barbieverse since.
“Barbie’s world is about Barbie. And (to some), Ken may be an accessory of sorts," said Ed Timke, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University, pointing to years of marketing that has, naturally, put Barbie at center stage.
The new attention around Ken following “Barbie’s” release has also received pushback. Many note that the movie is about Barbie — not Ken — and that's where the spotlight should stay.
Still, the dynamic between the film’s Barbie and Ken may get people to reflect some big questions about gender as well as Ken's own evolution over the years.
Who is Ken as a toy and how has he changed?
Ken's relationship to Barbie has been up for debate since the two hit the toy aisle together. While Mattel long-advertised Ken as Barbie's boyfriend — and even detailed their 2004 split and subsequent reconciliation seven years later — many also saw Ken as Barbie's best friend, and sometimes queer icon. One 1993 version of Ken in particular, Earring Magic Ken, became notably popular among LGBTQ consumers, the New York Historical Society notes. At the time, Mattel denied the Earring Magic Ken was queer and later pulled him from shelves.
Other popular versions of Ken ranged from the tuxedo-wearing 1984 Dream Date Ken, to 1978 Superstar Ken and 1979 Sun Malibu Ken, which became one of the doll's most iconic looks (as reflected in Ryan Gosling's character). While Ken has gone through far fewer career changes than Barbie, his resume boasts job titles like astronaut, barista, country western singer and doctor.
“A wonderful thing is that through play, children are free to have their dolls take on any type of role that they wish,” said Ann Herzog, a clinical instructor of child life and family-centered care at Boston University.
She also underlined the importance of diversity in toy collections and providing “open-ended play opportunities and not to endorse stereotypes that the Barbie collection and dolls in general are only specific to a particular gender.”
While children of all genders, including young boys, have played with Barbie and Ken over the years, Timke notes that “there’s definitely the gendering of marketing toward girls” for both figures, pointing to contrasts in advertising for products historically seen as “boy toys,” such as G.I. Joe. That legacy, as well as other socialization, still impacts who plays with certain toys today.
Still, Ken — like Barbie — has evolved over time and become more diverse, particularly after Mattel rolled out more skin tones, body types, hairstyles and more for Ken dolls in 2017. Some Kens also have prosthetic legs, wheelchairs and hearing aids. Increases in diverse representation — with similar changes seen since 2016 for Barbie — has boosted the dolls' popularity and comeback sales, Silver said.
Will Barbie (and Ken) sales increase following the movie’s release?
Mattel did not respond to The Associated Press' requests for data or comment on specific Ken and Barbie sales seen before and after “Barbie's” July 21 release. But according to market research firm Circana, Barbie sales overall for the U.S. toy industry increased 40% in the last two weeks of July compared with the same period in 2022.
Circana doesn't break out Ken from Barbie sales. Still, “I suspect that, with the movie, sales of Ken dolls will experience a strong lift in sales," Juli Lennett, VP, U.S. toys industry advisor at Circana, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. Additional experts also expected a spike in interest, but weren't sure about the long run.
Lennett did note that the top-selling “Barbie” movie item for those last two weeks of July was the Barbie Gingham Dress followed by the Ken Doll Set. Between those two items, Barbie outsold Ken nearly two to one, she said.
For the second quarter of 2023, which ended weeks before the movie’s release, worldwide sales of Barbie to retailers excluding adjustments actually fell 6%. Mattel executives told analysts that sales had improved in July, and it expects the movie will have a halo effect on the brand for years to come.
There was a carryover of inventory across the toy industry for the first half of the year, Silver explains, noting that record sales in the first years of the pandemic led to over-buying at the end of 2022. He predicts a rebound in Barbie sales heading into the holiday season, when toy spending is high and after “Barbie” eventually makes its way to streaming.
And of course, sales following “Barbie’s” release won’t be limited to the toy aisle. Other branded products are also gaining popularity from the film, including Ken-focused swag like “I am Kenough” sweatshirts and other “Ken-ergy” apparel, are currently for sale by Mattel, as well as from third-party sellers on sites like Amazon and Walmart.