For two lonely years, Barbie was single. She made her debut in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1961 that Ken, a male doll invented to be her boyfriend, came around. He got his name from the son of Eliot Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, and his wife Ruth, who eventually served as the company’s president.
Barbie has become infamous for her unrealistic and patriarchy-fueling beauty standards, but there is also a basic issue with Ken’s anatomy: he doesn’t have a penis. A new feature in Jezebel about Ken’s dicklessness tells the story about how what is (and isn’t) between Ken’s legs was decided.
Ruth Handler, the inventor of the Barbie, fought her husband and the rest of the design team at Mattel to ensure the doll had breasts, and she had similar hopes that Ken would “at least have a bulge.”
Cy Schneider, an ad man for the company, said that the size of Ken’s bulge was a “hot internal issue.” Still, the possibility of giving Ken a penis was never seriously entertained by Mattel executives.
“If the child took off the swimsuit, we felt it would be inappropriate with an adult boy to show the penis—so we all reached a conclusion that he should have a permanent swimsuit,” Ruth reportedly said.
There was at least one person at Mattel who wanted Ken to have an actual penis: Charlotte Johnson, an early designer of Barbie’s outfits.
“Do you know what every little girl in this country is going to do? They are going to sit there and scratch that paint off to see what’s under it. What else would they do?” Johnson said.
Dr. Ernest Dichter, a psychologist and marketing expert, agreed that the primary play mode for the dolls was dressing and undressing them after spending hours watching girls play with the dolls.
“[Dichter] pointed out the primary play mode for the Barbie and Ken dolls was dressing and undressing them,” wrote Schneider.
“He questioned whether children would understand that Ken was a boyfriend or comprehend what a boyfriend really was. Would they see Ken as their fathers, brothers, or the boy next door? And if so, was it healthy to see him undressed? And when he was naked, why did he or didn’t he look like Daddy or a brother?”
Keeping Ken’s genitals smooth was the easiest way to avoid these thorny questions.
While it wasn’t ultimately a factor between eunuch and non-eunuch Ken, the manufacturing process did bump Ken’s package down a notch, according to Schneider.
There were two issues. The molding on the shorts that would fit over Ken’s package proved difficult for the Japenese plant Mattel was using to manufacture. Additionally, the large, rounded bulge Mattel had selected would add a cent and a half to the manufacturing cost versus a more modest package.
An engineering supervisor “arbitrarily” eliminated both complications.
So there you have it: corporate cowardice, a child psychologist, and the limits of early 1960’s manufacturing tech conspired to give the world the relatively poorly endowed Ken kids have been playing with for decades.
For more on the later history and implications of Ken’s dicklessness, check out the entire piece on Jezebel. You’ll never look at the smooth, curved area between Ken’s legs the same way again.