Why the Ken Doll Will Never Truly Emerge From Barbie’s Shadow | Arts & Culture

In this episode of the new Smithsonian magazine podcast, “There’s More to That,” journalist Emily Tamkin, who wrote a cultural history of Barbie for our June 2023 issue, turns to Ken, Barbie’s perennial plus-one. With Ken’s existential crisis getting a surprising amount of screen time in Greta Gerwig’s runaway hit film Barbie, we look at various attempts to make Ken more than just a plastic hairstyle over the decades. Tamkin, who has written extensively about Jewish identity in America, also considers what Barbie creator Ruth Handler’s famous offspring might tell us about the American dream.

A transcript of the episode is below.

Chris Klimek, host: When writer Emily Tamkin was little, she created a whole imagined life for her Barbie and Ken dolls.

Emily Tamkin, Smithsonian magazine contributor: We sent these Barbies to college. They had different careers.

They took extended family trips together. They had the trailer that we would load the Barbies up into for road trips. 

Klimek: Barbie was always the star of the show. And in all her imaginary plotlines, Emily can only remember her Ken doll playing one featured part. 

Tamkin: In the ’90s, when a sexual harassment case came before the Supreme Court, I somehow as like a 9-year-old found out about this and had my Barbie take her boyfriend Ken to court for sexual harassment.

Klimek: What was the outcome of the case? 

Tamkin: Yeah, of course Barbie won. 

Klimek: Emily recently wrote about the history of the Barbie doll for Smithsonian magazine. She also said that in her own play, the character of Ken took something of a backseat in Barbie’s pink convertible.

Tamkin: I think that my Kens sort of fell into the…

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