It’s been a tumultuous seven years for Barbie and Ken, the pretty, blonde doll couple who were literally made for each other. After over 40 doll years of romantic love of the hand-holding variety, the plastic couple “broke up” in 2004. Barbie started dating Blaine, a surfer bro, who was conveniently part of the new Barbie “Cali Girl” product line.
Over the past few months, Mattel, which owns the Barbie brand, has been staging Ken’s mission to win Barbie back, using an impressive advertising campaign that included social media profiles, huge billboards, magazine ads and a Times Square marketing blitz during New York fashion week. The couple finally reconnected this year just in time for Valentine’s Day, on February 14.
But aside from Barbie’s fling with Blaine, the details, torrid or otherwise, of Barbie’s and Ken’s separate lives have not been discussed by Mattel. However, curious minds needn’t worry—a new website, KenandBen.com, fills in the gaps of Ken’s single life. Ken & Ben makes the case that Ken was better off without Barbie in his life—after all, they argue, he’s gay.
Since the second week of February, Ken & Ben has been live online. It allows users to vote whether Ken should date Ben Collins, another gay doll. Ben has a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, and even a Grindr dating profile.
The imagination behind Ben Collins is a team of four friends—Nathan, Hillary, Stewart, and Chris—who work together in the marketing industry. They got the idea after seeing the breadth of Mattel’s sweeping advertising campaign. Hillary reflected:
When we saw that, we said, “That’s such BS—Ken’s gay!” And we started running with that idea. We thought it would be an opportunity to change things up. We thought we’d take this chance to have a little fun, flip the tables, and get some buzz around something alternative.”
While their project didn’t go hugely mainstream or attract an overwhelming number of fans or followers on Facebook or Twitter (although over 10,000 people have voted to approve of the would-be couple’s love), Ken & Ben did make enough of a mark to get some Internet buzz. Dozens of blogs from all over the world reposted or wrote about the site, and even The Advocate and Queerty gave it a plug.
As for the masterminds behind the operation, they’ve stayed largely quiet about their role in Ken & Ben, even choosing not to disclose their last names, locations, or specific professions for this story. Nathan explained the success of this goal to let Internet users shape Ben’s significance, even citing a work of Ken and Ben fan fiction:
We actually wanted Ben to have a real persona—people kind of gave their own perspective on who Ben is, and they really gave him a life online. … If we had done this 20 years ago, there would have been huge backlash. But it’s nice that people were excited about this.
Stewart says that the project is designed mainly as a tongue-in-cheek, fun exploration of an imaginary situation. But I think he and his colleagues may be selling themselves short. I view the Ken & Ben campaign as a clever instance of culture jamming. The Ken & Ben website is actively working to compete with (in a very David & Goliath way, but where we all know that Goliath’s going to win) Mattel’s marketing mission to reinvigorate interest in Barbie and Ken.
The Ken & Ben concept not only makes fun of Mattel, but it also calls into question the institution of Barbie, challenging one of the most pervasive cultural displays of heterosexuality in our country’s history. The perfection of Barbie and Ken, who became an archetype for the Great American Couple, is engrained into kids from a young age. But Ken & Ben is slyly suggesting that maybe we had it wrong all along; maybe Ken’s into dudes after all.
Mattel, for one, is less than pleased with the Ken & Ben website. When Nathan, Chris, Hillary, and Stewart tried to drum up attention for their project by using Ben Collins’ Facebook account to post messages on the official Ken and Barbie pages, “Ben” was quickly banned from posting on the walls of the famous duo. Apparently, the company’s not going to let Ken’s past—real, imagined, or otherwise—interfere with their brand image.