The year is 1993. Barbie is cool as shit, but her boyfriend Ken...not so much. Way less outfits, way less adventures, and with cool dudes like G.I. Joe and the New Kids on the Block fashion dolls to woo the blonde bombshell over, Ken's chances weren’t looking great. Mattel needed to do something, and stat. So they surveyed a bunch of five year olds who definitely knew what cool was and made a whole new Ken, ready to burst out of the closet and say hi to the world.
Chrome cock ring necklace and all.
You may be shocked to find out that children have a very easily influenced idea of what’s cool. The quizzed little girls that Mattel surveyed were more than happy to repeat back what they saw as cool (mainly whatever was airing on the then still-newish MTV), but five years olds aren’t exactly known for their in-depth understanding of social trends, gender norms, and the general cultural climate. So they had no idea that say, Madonna’s cool back up dancers, were actually gay AF.
And that’s how we ended up with Earring Magic Ken, a companion to Earring Magic Barbie clad in a purple mesh shirt, a purple leather vest, wearing a big, shiny, silver ring around his neck. While he fits into some gay stereotypes, (especially from the early '90s), it’s the necklace that really got everyone’s attention.
As gay author and journalist Dan Savage explains in a column about the doll from 1993, in the late '80s and early '90s, besides being a sex toy, a cock ring was the queer fashion statement of the time. Leather daddies wore them stitched to their vests. Lesbians wore them as zipper pulls. Placement on clothing communicated secret preferences to those in the know, much like pierced ears at the time (Ken does have that "straight" at least). And many, many people wore them around their necks as a necklace. Ken included. The accessory was a staple of the gay club culture that was blowing up at the time, a scene Ken would fit right into with his leather/mesh ensemble.
Obviously, none of those little girls told the Mattel researchers that they wanted Ken to wear a cock ring around his neck. It is probably true that the adults designing the doll saw the fashion out of context and never thought to dig deeper. Mattel staunchly denies the doll was intended to have anything to do with homosexuality at all. The early '90s was a time when queer culture was just starting to blossom in the open, still reeling from the horror of the AIDS crisis. Queer culture and pop culture were beginning to mingle in a way they hadn’t before, and Earring Magic Ken is an example of what happens when you pay attention to the what of trends and not the why.
Mattel, who has never been pleased about this connection, rushed to discontinue the dolls. However, the story spread faster than them, and sales for the doll spiked, making him the best selling Ken doll ever. Some even claim the best selling Barbie model ever, but as Mattel is unwilling to discuss our friend Ken’s current status, that title goes to Total Hair Barbie (released the year before).
Still, he will always have his little place in history as the time Barbie supported her boyfriend in exploring his homosexual tendencies. Who knew Barbie was such a cool girlfriend?