In the early 1990s, Ken was in trouble.
Faced with lackluster sales of the doll, Mattel surveyed five-year-old girls and asked them if they thought Barbie should break up with Ken. The children said that they wanted Ken to stay with Barbie, but he needed to be cooler. This was a common sentiment; if you peruse Ken's past, you'll find plenty of mediocrity and bland choices, styles of the times but no doubt lacking.
What happens next in the chain of events is uncertain; some sources say that the surveyed children made demands for Ken's new look, and some suggest that Mattel took it into their own hands.
Either route, Mattel arrived at one stop: a brand-new Earring Magic Ken, a part of the Earring Magic Barbie line.
Ken's makeover consisted of some chunky blonde highlights, a purple mesh shirt, a purple pleather vest, and an earring in his left ear. From Madonna’s dancers to Prince to Ballroom, this look was snatched right out of the queer community, and while appropriation was not new, Ken’s shiny new pendant wasn’t going to lose its roots so easily.
Author Dan Savage remarked that the outfit was three-year-old rave couture and that the flashy pendant Ken sported was in fact a cockring. Men wore cockrings on a necklace to signal that they were gay to other people in the know, and some men would wear cockrings secured to their vest: on the right if they are a bottom, and on the left if they are a top. A covert communication system, cockrings soon found their way into fashion, as zipper pulls and accessories for the younger gay crowds that had no care for the code.
This was during the AIDS crisis, and nobody wanted any part of queer culture outright.
So, when Ken hit the scene as a newly out man, the queer community was thrilled. There had been Gay Bob and Billy Doll, proud gay dolls living in the fringes, but out of nowhere there was a mainstream representation of gay rave culture – albeit white and cis – in a time when plenty of people needed to be seen.
However, after six months and record sales, Mattel recalled the doll.
Today, you won't find Earring Magic Ken in Mattel’s archives or even in the company’s vernacular. You will find his body recycled in the beach-themed Barbie line that immediately followed. We can guess that the use of the same doll, sans jewelry, was simply to recoup their investment.
The next Ken to come was in 1994: Shaving Ken, a noticeably "straighter" doll with clunkier denim-clad fashion, dark brown hair, and a sturdier disposition. He had a literal beard (pun very much intended) that could be washed away with "aftershave" only to "grow" back in time. For the next several years, Ken was buried in heteronormativity.
What does Ken's brush with pride teach us?
The masses wanted more than what was deemed fashionable for straight men.
Lisa McKendall, Manager of marketing communications for Mattel at the time, is quoted saying,
"We never would have done this a few years ago. But now you see more earrings on men. They are more accepted in day-to-day life. We are trying to keep Ken updated."
This demonstrates that Mattel’s design team had the intent to prey upon gay culture for notoriety and profit and only changed their tune because they had stepped too far into queerness. If Ken cannot pass for straight, he cannot exist. If gay men can be indescript about their sexuality, they can be appropriated for normative culture - but if they are too queer, if they pass the boundary that allows others complacency, they are worthless and deserve not only to lose their status but also their identity and their history.
Unfortunately, this may be the case for Ken’s namesake, Ken Handler, the son of the creator of Barbie who is rumored to have died because of AIDS complications, with the cause of death allegedly being hidden by his family and the Mattel company.
If you stop persecuting others, they will be free, but if they stop pursuing freedom, they will be dead.
Dupere, K. (June 29th, 2020). THE TRUE STORY OF MATTEL ACCIDENTALLY RELEASING A SUPER GAY KEN DOLL. In The Know. https://www.intheknow.com/2020/06/29/earring-magic-ken-gay/
Grasso, S. (February 16th, 2018). 20 Fabulous Facts About Ken Dolls. Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/irl/ken-doll-barbie/
Savage, D. (1993). Ken Comes Out. Seattle Stranger.
The Baltimore Sun. (1993). Toy industry tinkers with gender bending And Barbie’s Ken sports an earring. The Baltimore Sun.