The Yassification of Ken: Earring Magic Ken and his enduring gay legacy

Mattel tried to make Barbie's boyfriend more exciting. And they did! By making him gay.

The face of the Earring Magic Ken doll, known to many as Gay Ken.
Image: @islademunecas via Instagram

When the entertainment world caught sight of first-look pictures of Ryan Gosling in his new film role as Barbie’s boy-toy, with a distressed jean vest and tan abs so defined they could truly be moulded plastic, needless to say, there was a lot of excitement. Some fans, however, noticed certain similarities between Gosling’s look and another time gay fans went nuts over Ken.

That’s right – Gosling bears a striking resemblance to Earring Magic Ken – sometimes known as Gay Ken or even Cock Ring Ken, who actually makes a cameo appearance in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

Yes, somehow 1993 Mattel thought that this look made sense for a man in a committed heterosexual relationship:

An Earring Magic Ken doll, often known as Gay Ken, dressed in a purple mesh shirt, purple faux-leather jacket and black pants, in its cardboard 'Barbie' packaging.

Looking back, surely even Mattel can admit that this logic seems faulty at best. 

Between his purple mesh top and faux-leather vest, bleach-blonde two-toned hair, singular pierced ear and necklace holding a good sized ring (whatever terminology you want to lend to it), Ken screams early-’90s-gay-rave-attendee. And the ring, for those who understood queer culture, only confirmed suspicions.

As Dan Savage described in his 1993 article about the doll, wearing cock rings as accessories, especially on necklaces, had become commonplace for the LGBTQ+ community by the late ’80s. The trend started among gay men, but then spread, becoming a fashionable accent piece regardless of gender.

Cocks or not,” Savage wrote, “[lesbians] didn’t want to miss out on any of the sex-positive accessorising.”

According to Lisa McKendall, the Mattel representative answering Savage’s questions about Earring Magic Ken, the circle on the string around his neck is a necklace charm and ONLY a necklace charm. “It’s a necklace. It holds charms he can share with Barbie,” McKendall said. “We’re not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls!”

Admittedly, the necklace ring would indeed allow for the attachment and trading around of the little charms that went with the Earring Magic Barbie collection of dolls. But taking int0 consideration Savage’s observation that “the thick chrome variety, the Classic Coke of cock rings, was and is most often worn as a pendant,” and there’s no seeing Ken’s necklace as anything else. 

Mattel explained the particular doll’s origin, saying that when they’d surveyed some young girls about whether to keep Ken or have Barbie move on to someone new, the girls told them to keep him but make him cooler. The result: Ken’s fabulous purple makeover.

As Savage pointed out in his article, the “cool” thing in the US at the time was LGBTQ+ culture. “Suddenly, it’s hip to be queer,” he wrote. “The little girls of our great nation wanted a hipper Ken, and Mattel gave them a hip Ken. A queer Ken.”

Word got around about how Mattel had created a gay Ken complete with a cock ring, somewhat thanks to Savage’s article. Mattel took action, discontinuing Earring Magic Ken and recalling all those that they could from stores, though the LGBTQ+ community did their best to get their hands on the doll while they still could. 

Trying to shove their accidentally-gay Ken back into the closet by pulling him off the shelves, Mattel martyred him instead, making Earring Magic Ken a collector’s item and an icon. Multiple outlets report Earring Magic Ken as still being the best selling Ken doll ever, despite his mere six weeks on store shelves, and the doll has become a meme, a halloween costume and beyond.

So, while Ryan’s version of Ken is sure to be spectacular, he’ll have to wait in line behind our favourite ripped raver. 

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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