NTU Associate Lecturer discusses the role of Ken in the Barbie Movie

NTU Associate Lecturer discusses the role of Ken in the Barbie Movie

 July 26, 2023

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Nottingham Trent University (NTU) women lecturers often share their expertise on current cultural and social topics. 

"Barbie" seems to be the icon that everyone is talking about, but how about Ken?

In this fascinating piece for The Conversation, NTU Associate Lecturer in Fashion Communication and Promotion Hui-Ying Kerr looks at the history of Barbie's boyfriend, Ken.

Hui-Ying Kerr is Associate Lecturer, Fashion Communication and Promotion at Nottingham Trent University.

"Created by Barbie’s inventor Ruth Handler, Ken was a boyfriend designed by women for girls. Just as Barbie was named after Handler’s daughter, so Ken was named after her son. And so the safe, boyfriend-friend dynamic of Barbie and Ken’s relationship was established. Notably designed with no genitalia, he signifies a first masculine encounter in little girls’ playscapes and a safe space in which to practice romantic relationships," shares Hui-Ying. 

"However, this does not mean that traditional patriarchal relationship dynamics are always faithfully replicated when children play with Ken and Barbie. As with all play, the dream space of Barbie and Ken meant they offered an alternate space for relationship ambitions, where rules could be broken."

The "Barbie" movie stars the ever wonderful and accomplished Margot Robbie as the leggy doll, and Ryan Gosling as her gelded beau, Ken. 

A popular tagline ensued: "She’s everything. He’s just Ken."

Frustrations with masculinity 

Hui-Ying looks at how, as the supporting player to Barbie, Ken unwittingly becomes the locus of little girls’ expectations of, and frustrations with, masculinity.

"Barbie is characterised by excess...long flowing hair, countless accessories and careers," shares Hui-Ying. Ken has the absence of any meaningful role. "Outshined and out-glammed by Barbie, denied any rugged substance..." suggests Hui-Ying. "...Ken appears little more than an emasculated bit player."

So, from college sweetheart, to Barbie’s ex-boyfriend, to a poster boy for troubled masculinity, what is next for Ken?

Read the full article

A multidisciplinary background 

NTU Hui Ying

With a multidisciplinary background in Product Design and Architecture and Critical Theory, Hui-Ying completed her PhD in History of Design at the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) in 2017, exploring consumer cultures of the late 1980s Japanese Bubble Economy through lifestyle magazines. Sponsored by the AHRC-CDA program for her PhD, she was also an AHRC-IPS scholar and visiting researcher at the National Museum of Ethnology (Osaka, Japan) during her fieldwork in Japan.

Since 2016, she has held a permanent teaching position at Nottingham Trent University, first in Product Design, and more recently in Fashion Management, Marketing, and Communication.

Over the years Hui-Ying has been the recipient of several awards and grants, including twice winner of the NTSU Student-Led Teaching Awards for Outstanding Teaching Staff in 2017 and 2019. Hui-Ying is also a founding member and chair of the NTU Academic Book Publishing Group.

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