Examining both the methodologies of reality television and the history of the Barbie brand, this paper seeks to identify the neoliberal methodologies present in the Genuine Ken narrative, from the gamedoc rubric, to the selective casting, to the manner in which the participants are portrayed. The show seeks not only to commodify romance, but also the individual participants, as bastions of interchangeable personality archetypes. The show serves to illuminate the fact that romance and couplehood are two separate entities, and begs the question of whether the public couple is a more important representation of modern romance and domesticity than the private couple. We will also examine the marketing strategies of the Barbie brand, and effects that Barbie’s themes and tropes have on the female identity, and public perception of both femininity and masculinity.
In its mission to solidify its place as a legitimate and respected media network, the online television website Hulu.com has branded several original television shows as a means of drawing an audience independent of their televised network offerings. Genuine Ken is not the first of these programs, but most notable in its flagship sponsorship by Mattel’s Barbie line, arguably the most popular doll in the history of play-based simulacra. Though awash with the cheerful, jewel-toned purples and blues associated with the brand, as well as the iconic Pantone 219, or “Barbie Pink,” the show focuses primarily on masculine identity (and feminine perception thereof) in seeking to identify among its contestants the Great American Boyfriend – an embodiment of Ken Carson, Barbie’s male counterpart (Orenstein, 2011: 39). In doing so, the show illuminates the realities of dating and mating in Neoliberal America, where romance, couple-hood, and domestic love are separate entities, the latter an almost forgotten consequence of courting; the two former, commodities marketed to audiences seeking to identify as members of normative, socially accepted, pair-bonded dyads.
Barbie – Her Past and Present
“Barbie really means you can do anything. You can be glamorous, (sic) you can have a fabulous career. You can have a grand house. And you can do whatever you want. She’s the American Dream.”
– Peter Som, Fashion Designer
“Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
– Ruth Handler, inventor of Barbie, founder of Mattel
Barbie was initially the brainchild of Ruth Handler. Born Ruth Mosko in 1916, she was the youngest of ten children of Polish immigrants who settled in Denver, Colorado, where the Jewish community rivaled that of Manhattan (and how many might balk at Barbie’s all-American persona to discover she was the brainchild of a Jewish mother?). By virtue of her American birth (7 of her older siblings had been born in Poland), she received a better education than most of her family, which only fueled her ambitious confidence. Due to her mothers’ illness, Ruth was raised from the age of 6 months by her sister Sarah, 20 years her senior. Unable to have children herself, Sarah bonded maternally with her baby sister, and though her family support structure was strong, she began to see her parents as her grandparents, and her sister as “the greatest influence on the woman I was to become,” as she herself once said. “(Sarah) was a fantastic role model and I absolutely idolized her. She always worked outside the home, seemed to thrive on working, so I grew up with the idea that a woman – a mother – with a job was neither strange nor unnatural” (Stone 2010: 10-1)
This pseudo-parental sibling bond between Ruth and Sarah may have served as the influence for the sisterhood dynamic Barbie shares with her younger siblings. Originally having only one sibling, Barbie is today a loving and supportive older sibling to three younger sisters – Skipper, whose age has varied from her introduction, from pre-pubescence to post adolescence; Stacy, the adolescent, “teenage” sister, and Chelsea, the grade-school aged “baby” sister. While the characters arguably offer a positive framework for female cooperation, one does question the reflection of the modern family dynamic, as none of the four Roberts sisters have any identifiable parentage. This atypical familial dynamic, though arguably laudable in its deviation from the traditional, heterosexual nuclear norm, does raise questions as to what young girls can infer regarding the stability of Barbie’s social and emotional networks.
Ruth held a job from the age of 10 (a paradigm Barbie’s modern audiences would be hard pressed to empathize with), and enjoyed the authority and independence of work. Her infatuation with Isadore “Izzy” Elliot Handler began two weeks before she formally met him. He was a poor artist, so her parents disapproved of the match and gently encouraged her to break up with him by offering her a trip to California, but distance only made their hearts grow fonder. After an on and off relationship during which both earned college degrees (virtually unheard of for a woman in the 1930’s), Izzy and Ruth were married in 1939. After their wedding, Ruth’s ambitions kicked into overdrive, and her desire for success permeated every aspect of the couple’s lives. Unimpressed with “Izzy,” Ruth convinced her husband to respond to his middle name, and Izzy became Elliot at his wife’s request. From then on out, Ruth took the reigns of the family’s financial future, and, all while giving birth to and raising the couple’s two children (Barbara, born in 1941, and Ken, born in 1944), parlayed her husband’s talent (and social standing as a male) into a partnership that would, under her guidance, eventually become the manufacturing firm Mattel. (Stone 2010: 15-7)
Indeed, Ruth’s success with the Barbie line was atypical, and her ambitious drive serves as a morality play of the neoliberal agenda. A woman with nothing was able to parlay her ambition and goals into an international fashion and fantasy empire, a self-made success story. But what can be said of the woman underneath the image of success and glamour?
“Women who’ve wanted to be perceived as powerful have long found it more efficient to identify with men than to try and elevate the entire female sex to their level.” (Levy, 2005: location 1028) Barbie, on the surface, seems to stand in defiance of this observation. Over the past 50 years, she has had many glamorous, if stylized careers, and the smile shining brightly from her pink plastic box has radiated confidence and ambition to generations of young women who looked to her for the same kind of guidance and inspiration that young Ruth once sought in her own older sister. But are the lessons young women gain from Barbie the same that young Ruth gleaned from Sarah, a true success story, a workingwoman with little education from a marginalized family, or do they speak of a more privileged, market-driven agenda?
Dramatis Personae – The Players and their Roles
Genuine Ken is an 8 episode series available on Hulu.com. In each 24-minute episode, the contestants face surprise challenges that test the degree to which they as individuals represent a “Genuine Ken,” the ideal boyfriend for the ideal girl that Barbie represents. The contests are framed by interview box segments that have clearly been filmed in post production.
The 8 male contestants were, as the narrative states “selected from thousands of applicants,” (though the methodology of this selection process is unknown). They are all physically attractive in terms of symmetry and fitness, and though their personalities could be considered diverse in regards to one another, they all manage to fit into neat Ken Doll Tropes:
- Chris Holscher – “Compassionate Ken”- a 23-year-old white male from Cincinnati, OH, “(wants) to prove that nice guys don’t always finish last,” though this sentiment eventually gives way to a good natured competitiveness as he admits that he doesn’t want to end up in second place. He is reserved and of few words throughout the program, but expresses a love of people and his family.
- Derek Steele – “Artistic Ken” – a 25 year old white male from Clarkston, MI, Derek portrays himself as a hip musician and producer, though his personality swings between over-confidence and insecurity, and his interview-box hubris makes him seem almost intentionally off-putting. Derek, notably, is the only contestant whose physique does not border on muscle-bound-ness – an average build that is derided as pale and skinny when he is required to strip (to change into a wetsuit) in front of the rest of the group.
- Keith Henderson– “Heartwarming Ken” – a 30 year old black male from Chicago, he is a self-professed romantic poet, and lists his smile as one of his best features. His interview style could be considered somewhat forced, and he is often the first to admit that he can’t, or is afraid to do something (ie – cooking, surfing).
- Kurtis Taylor– “Dreamer Ken” a 25-year-old male of indeterminate ethnicity from Fort Dodge, IN. A professional football player for the St. Louis Rams, Kurtis exudes a “down-home” sort of chivalrous courtesy and expresses himself in hyper-masculine terms.
- Kash Kiefer – “All Ameri-Ken” – A 25 year old white male from Las Vegas (originally West Virginia), Kash is a bartender/model who played 6 sports in high school, as well as cheerleading, which earns him some derision from the other contestants.
- David Homyk – “Crooner Ken” – a 31-year-old singer-songwriter from New York (by way of Charlottesville, VA), David considers himself “soulful,” and generally stutters over feminine beauty in the interview box, which producers exaggerate with sound effects.
- Leeron Cohen – “Style Ken” – a 23 year old white, possibly Jewish male from Miami, Leeron is considered exceptionally talkative, an enthusiasm which also manifests itself athletically in kickboxing and self defense.
- Michael Pericoloso – “Party Ken” – a 25-year-old white, Italian- American male, Mike embodies the Jersey Shore paradigm pre-established by the reality television milieu, from his gelled faux-hawk to his tri-fold profession as a bartender, gym trainer, and rapper.
The primary judge on the tri-headed host panel of the show is Lauren Bruksch, the head of Barbie Marketing. A statuesque blonde with poise and grace, Bruksch seems herself to embody the Barbie mystique that the show perpetuates, lending further credence to the show’s judiciary power regarding romantic/stylistic suitability of the contestants. A second, guest judge cycles each week, relative to the challenge the contestants face. This is usually another television or Internet personality that the show introduces and summarily glamorizes by alluding to them as a “star,” without establishing the criteria by which stardom is conferred – another method of asserting credibility.
The host, Whitney Port, is a 26-year-old veteran of reality television. After appearing on several seasons of MTV’s The Hills, Port launched a spinoff series, The City, and parlayed this fame into the success of her fashion line, known as Whitney Eve. Though the show does a great deal to glamorize her beauty and apparent personal success (along with the string of guest judges who join the program from their own reality shows), Port appears to be another example of “reality tv participants (who drift) from program to program, with little real hope of long-term stability.” (Hendershott, 2009: 246)
Appearing in every episode, Port serves as the ersatz Barbie to which the winner will, presumably, play Ken. This is, however, never made clear, leaving the audience to question whether the show is a romantic matchup ala The Bachelorette, or a Survivor-style competition wherein the winner has simply proven that he is the best “boyfriend material.” In fact, the prize – a charitable donation of their choice, a modeling contract with Barbie International, and a Ken doll made in their likeness – is not revealed until the very last episode of the program. A date with Port is never offered to the contestants. Indeed, Port does not engage the contestants personally; instead maintaining a polite distance from which to address them as a group, except when singling out contestants during the Elimination phase. She is sympathetic, but softly stoic, a demeanor which just barely avoids clashing with her youth and apparent vivaciousness.
Each episode is framed by real world stock footage, stylized with frame removal to give everyday scenes of traffic and public activity the appearance of stop motion, plasticized animation. Of note, these scenes depict parks, the beach and romantic bistros – settings associated with casual courtship. The Great American Boyfriend is not being judged on his performance in a committed domestic relationship. Similarly, the majority of the locales are specific to the Southern California lifestyle with which Barbie and her beach-addicted friends are associated, an area of the country to which several contestants admit they have never been (Kurtis, for example, had never seen the ocean before the show).
Each contestant, as a symbol of their acquiescence to the gamedoc, is given a teal Ken tag reminiscent of the tag attached to the 1961 Ken doll, which certified his authenticity. The contestant eliminated each week comes forward so that Port may remove his tag with a pair of pink-handled scissors, a pseudo-castration accompanied by a dramatized guillotine sound effect. The episode arc runs as follows with a summary of eliminations and justifications:
- That’s KEN-tertainment – The first episode, the contestants are introduced to the “loft,” the home base of the competition where they receive their briefings and challenges. Their first task is a talent show, which puts them on the spot to come up with an individual talent. Eliminated: None – Their hollow argument “A girlfriend should get to know her boyfriend before she lets him go,” glosses over the fact that the contest math requires that the first episode be elimination free. Kash is rewarded for his talent show win with a Pink tag, which saves him from elimination on a round of his choice.
- KEN-terior Designers – The contestants, in groups of four, must design a space that’s “warm, inviting, and reflects your personal style.” They are given a time limit to do so, and are offered the limited selection of a single retailer (Urban Home) with which to make their “personal” statements. Eliminated – Mike, who was considered the weakest link on the losing team.
- Malibu Ken – The contestants all get a free surf lesson, which serves as their secret challenge as their surf teacher/model judges them on risk taking and their longest wave. For some contestants, this is their first experience with the beach at all, let alone the unique beach-comber privilege of surfing. Eliminated – Leeron, whose past derision of his fellow contestants (in the form of laughter) is referenced as inappropriate boyfriend behavior.
- KEN He Cook? – The contestants are shuttled to Mattel headquarters, where they are again divided into two teams and tasked with crafting an entrée for a Barbie reception. Once again they are offered a limited (though generous) supply of raw ingredients to prepare their meals. Eliminated – David, who has yet to stand out. “A Genuine Ken has passion and personality.”
- Limited Edition Ken – Gifted with a single designer accessory originally worn by a Ken doll of yesteryear, the contestants are given a one-store shopping spree with which to create a look around said fashion piece to be debuted at a private fashion show. Kash uses his pink tag to avoid elimination. Despite his modeling and fashion experience, his outfit did not meet the judge’s standards. Eliminated – Derek, whose individuality has been consistently highlighted as an awkward annoyance. And his shoes were far too big. “The first thing a girl looks at are your shoes.”
- Race to NYC – The contestants must remember trivia from a conversation they weren’t really paying attention to in order to complete Barbie’s Errands – a few chores a boyfriend shouldn’t mind doing for his girlfriend. Especially if he’s a good listener. Eliminated – Keith, who has completed the least number of tasks, is eliminated despite the addition of a rose, a personalized, romantic touch.
- Public A-WEAR-ness – the three remaining contestants travel to New York City, where Kenneth Cole tasks them with the creation of a public service campaign. The winner of the challenge receives $5000 in matched contributions to the charity of their choice. Kurtis, an advocate for abused women and children, is the winner. Eliminated – Kash, whose PSA for orphans shouldn’t have involved taking his shirt off.
- The Real Genuine Ken – The last two contestants (Chris and Kurtis), are given cameras and a list of iconic New York locales of which they are to take pictures in order to convince a group of 50 women that they are the perfect boyfriend by interpreting romance through a camera lens. Eliminated – Chris, after a 20/30 split on the women’s votes.
All of the contestants react with gentlemanly aplomb regarding their elimination, though their interview-box style often leaves much to be desired in terms of courtesy to their fellow contestants.After what appears to be difficult deliberation on the part of the judges, Kurtis is selected as Genuine Ken.
What Ken Is (Barbie Isn’t) – An Examination of Gender Expectations
“I heart Ken – The season’s hottest accessory!”
“Someday my Ken will come. He really is a doll!”
– From the Loft Wall Art, Genuine Ken
“Yes, as girls, we do love pillows…”
“When cooking for the female palate, you might want to consider something less hearty.”
– Lauren Bruksch, episodes 2 and 4
Through the use of Barbie’s familiar gender tropes, Genuine Ken not only outlines what is considered ideal in regards to the male courtier, but serves to marginalize women in the eyes of men – limiting female opinion and desire to narrow scopes while judging male behavior as a reflection of how well they have catered to these preconceived feminine directives. Port’s introductory speech to the contestants identifies the judgment criteria as “…all of the characteristics us (sic) women look for in our men.” The implication therein is not only that women are looking for a specific set of behaviors and attributes, but that women are looking for the kinds of behaviors and attributes that can be comparatively analyzed and deemed “better” or “worse.” In other words, women are looking to test their men – a sentiment which, in practical application, can only breed gender bias and mistrust.
And such criteria is identified and enforced not only through straightforward rhetoric, but through negative reinforcement as well. The discovery that both Chris and Kash have had experience as cheerleaders causes the other contestants to deride their masculinity for having engaged in such a generally feminized activity. “He’s Barbie and Ken!” the others say of Kash as they reconvene at the beginning of the second episode. This follows Kash’s dominance of the previous episode’s talent competition through his grace and gymnastic displays; their derision is likely a means to reinforce their own masculinity in the face of such defeat, though it is a sentiment Genuine Ken Kurtis, the former football player, is slow to remove himself of, suggesting that this latent sexism is an acceptable, even a desirable trait in the Great American Boyfriend. Indeed, rigid definition of sexual roles served Kurtis and other contestants well throughout the competition; Leeron’s self defense tutorial during the initial talent show was poorly received but he ultimately received accolades from the judges for his attempts to “protect women.” Kurtis’s championing of women’s rights against domestic violence painted him as the hero, though it identified women as sexual victims, and discounted the reality that men are often the victims of domestic abuse. No doubt such a reality would have been met with the same uncomfortable derision that greeted cheerleaders Kash and Chris.
Mary F. Rogers, in her examination of Barbie’s role in the hetersexualization of adolescent girls Hetero Barbie, recognizes that girls and young women are guided by their communities to put stock in their appearance due to the perceived importance that their looks have, not only to their desirability to boys and men, but to their self worth and credibility as feminine beings. “As she gets heterosexualized… girls and young women face pressure to give boys and dating a lot of priority.” (1999: 94) And while Barbie seems to epitomize these female mandates, she is in no way the slave to her male peers that normal girls become in attempting to live up to these hyper-feminine expectations. And as Barbie can acquire the attention of her Ken with such ease that she hardly notices his presence, a young woman feels an increasing detachment to normalcy as she fails to hold a man in such devoted, obedient thrall. It is out of this insecurity that a desire to test the devotion of a partner arises – she has to know that she is capable of Barbie’s hypnotic, unquestionable sway over her partner, an unrealistic, borderline-abusive mentality that tests most relationships to their breaking point, perpetuating the cycle of rejection and emotional deficit that Barbie’s influence had originally helped to instill.
Dating vs. Mating – The Partnership Game
The plasticized façade of the Barbie world that the contestants enter serves as a metaphor for the shallow nature of their social trial. Though the trappings of the Genuine Ken Loft are indicative of home style and reminiscent of the retreat-style encampment in which makeover transformations take place, it is clear that no one lives on this home set. (Weber 2009: 44-5) The plastic, ultra-mod furnishings, from eclectic pop-art sitting room pieces, Astroturf throw rugs and silk indoor topiaries that mimic a perfect Barbie patio, to the well appointed dinette set at which no one ever eats, are all indicators of a model home – an entertainment space where guests are to be impressed by ones style and hospitality, but where no one is actually expected to live their life.
And indeed, the “boyfriend material” of which the contestants are made begs the question of their application and intent. The mise-en-scènes of romantic locales are reminiscent of the types of first date locations one takes a partner one wishes to impress. The hoops of charm and grace the contestants are expected to jump through all indicate their suitability as casual boyfriends; there are no trials available to test ones ability to stand the test of time as a reliable, long-term domestic partner. After all, the courtship style romance takes more work than even the most committed domestic partners can afford outside of truly special occasions, a deficit that only grows wider as a partnership grows into a family with the eventual addition of children. “The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950’s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.” (Coontz, 1992: 8) And perhaps, as Barbie herself was an invention of the 1950’s, an extension and evolution of this mentality is an unavoidable fallacy of the brand. As Peggy Orenstein so blithely puts it, “There is, it’s worth noting, no ‘Mom-with-three-ungrateful-children Barbie.’” (2011: 45)
It is arguable, that the stability and security of a long-term domestic partnership are anathema to the Neoliberal paradigm, wherein romance and sexual reassurance are commodities that can be purchased by the deserving. The settled, domestic dyad presumably has all the comfort they need in one another’s cooperative presence. The neoliberal agenda is best served by the insecure – the individual who must augment their personal appearance for the sake of attaining a new, better identity, the potential suitor or courtier who must prove their worthiness to their love interest via flashy and expensive displays of affection, or the unhappy couple (or single) who looks to an outside source to guide them toward a better, more fulfilling life-way. So long as neoliberalism can perpetuate this insecurity via quick fix mechanisms that ultimately give way to new trends that render old methods obsolete, there is no worry for the continuation of the market-driven paradigm. But once an individual can summon their own self respect and appreciate their own needs and desires for the rare and unique phenomena that they are (which are exactly the tools one needs to be part of a healthy domestic relationship), the capital-dependant paradigm of neoliberalism withers, taking the economic web of sexual commodification with it.
On the surface, one could argue that Genuine Ken serves as a role reversal of the traditional hot-tub dating show that turns women into sexualized objects though their own internalization of the game rhetoric and submission of their individual agency to the gamedoc (Gray, 2009: 264-5) And though the copious display of tanned, toned male flesh, accompanied with myriad costume changes and narrative evidence of male bumbling in the face of feminine beauty may convince the casual viewer that this is the case, closer inspection reveals the true rubric of the program – a Survivor-style competition where the prize is to be considered the epitome of the male Neoliberal sex object – at least, from the accepted perspective of the ideal female Neoliberal sex object. As neither is intended to be a true partner to one another, but rather a disposable commodity, one could consider the show an audition for mutual consumption. In Neoliberal romance, both parties seek a consumable from the other, and will play whatever games, perform whatever roles, wear whatever costumes are necessary to win the prize of sexual approval.
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