The true story of Mattel accidentally releasing a super gay Ken doll
It’s the early ‘90s and Barbie is at her peak popularity. But her boyfriend is a bit bland, a true dork best known for wearing satin tuxedos. Simply put, Ken isn’t cool — and Mattel isn’t having it.
But before giving Ken the boot, the toy giant decides to survey a gaggle of children on what’s cool, hoping to save Barbie’s dwindling leading man. The children’s answers, likely informed by media (some would later cite Madonna’s background dancers) and club-culture trends, inspire Ken’s new look and what would become an infamous nightmare for Mattel.
It is the 1993 version of, “How do you do, fellow kids?” — only a whole lot gayer.
The doll was called Earring Magic Ken, which is the absolute best name for an accidentally gay doll. And he is every ’90s queer stereotype in a chiseled hunk of plastic.
Earring Magic Ken rocks a mesh lavender shirt and matching pleather vest. His hair is perfectly quaffed and expertly highlighted with chunky streaks of blonde. True to his name, his ear is pierced on the left side, which was largely considered to be “the gay ear” to pierce at the time and a covert way of indicating queerness. And that’s not all to mention, his necklace was almost decidedly modeled after a sexual accessory trend of leathers and club-kids alike.
After the doll’s 1993 release, activist and writer Dan Savage, who at the time was working for queer-focused newspaper The Stranger, wrote a piece about the doll’s decidedly “gay” look. In the story, Savage particularly focused on the doll’s necklace, a circular chrome pendant hanging from a silver chain. Savage wrote that the necklace “is what ten out of ten people in-the-know will tell you at a glance is a c*** ring.”
Savage also wrote that it seemed Mattel’s design team “spent a weekend in LA or New York dashing from rave to rave, taking notes and Polaroids.”
The faux pas lead Lisa McKendall, who was the then-manager of marketing and communications for Mattel, to release a statement saying, “We’re not in the business of putting c*** rings into the hands of little girls.”
McKendall also told The Stranger, “It’s a necklace. It holds charms he can share with Barbie. C’mon, this is a doll designed for little girls, something like that would be entirely inappropriate.”
Who knows if the children surveyed by Mattel brought up this “trendy” accessory or if some clueless market researcher shouted out the pendant idea at a board meeting. It only mattered that Ken was wearing a super sexual necklace, a mesh lavender shirt and had his left ear pierced. “New Ken,” as he was termed, was officially “Gay Ken.”
While clueless moms picked up Earring Magic Ken for their kids, queer men flocked to toy stores, scooping up the doll accidentally modeled in their image. But Savage’s article is what many unofficial Earring Magic Ken historians consider the last straw for Mattel, with the toy brand discontinuing this particular Ken doll soon after publication. Mattel even went so far as to recall the doll from shelves. He was that gay.
In total, Earring Magic Ken was only available for six months in 1993 — but it still reportedly remains the best-selling Ken doll of all time. Some even suspect the doll may be the best-selling Barbie of all time, though that title is publicly held by 1992’s Totally Hair Barbie. Mattel, for what it’s worth, won’t really discuss Earring Magic Ken. He’s not even in the brand’s archive of historically significant dolls despite his best-seller status.
But pulling Earring Magic Ken from shelves wasn’t Ken’s last brush with queerness. When Barbie and Ken broke up in 2004, many fans joked Barbie’s former boyfriend had come out of the closet. The Ken doll featured in the “Toy Story” movies is outrageously queer-coded, though he’s supposedly head-over-heels with Barbie. Even before Earring Magic Ken, gay jokes surrounded fashion-loving Ken for his satin suits and affiliation with the hyper-feminine world of Barbie.
But unlike these jokes about Ken’s sexuality, Earring Magic Ken was the first time queer people weren’t the butt of the “gay Ken” joke. Instead, queer people were writing the material.
When Earring Magic Ken was released, virtually no brand was interested in aligning itself with the queer experience or invested in uplifting the LGBTQIA+ community. Pride Month certainly didn’t include brands decorating products in rainbows to prove how “progressive” they were. It was directly after the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States, and stigma around queer sexuality was rampant. In fact, in that year, 44 percent of the nation believed “gay relationships” — not marriage, simply dating someone of the opposite gender — should be illegal.
In 1993, Mattel (or any other brand, for that matter) would have never knowingly released a product for queer people because it would alienate the brand’s core consumer: conservative married moms in middle America who are buying Barbie for their children.
Earring Magic Ken likely struck such a chord with gay men and queer people because it was representation when no one wanted to represent us. The general public was full of disdain for queerness, yet couldn’t help but hail our aesthetic as the epitome of cool. And, sure, it was just plain hilarious that straight people didn’t understand our culture at all, mistaking a chrome “c*** ring” for a trendy kid-friendly pendant.
And it is still giggle-worthy to this day: Mattel wanted Ken to be cool enough for Barbie, but instead accidentally made him gay.
Almost three decades later, Mattel has evolved its brand to appeal to a growingly progressive consumer — and a more queer-friendly world. The toy giant now sells Creatable World dolls which allow for gender exploration and Ken dolls that, let’s face it, are gayer than Earring Magic Ken ever was. But even with more acceptance from brands and consumers since 1993, there’s still progress to be made. A November 2019 study of 700 shoppers found only 5 percent would actually consider buying a Creatable World doll.
As the queer community works toward more acceptance and inclusion year after year, it’s important to remember those who came before us, like Stonewall activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, politician Harvey Milk, and writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. And, yes, that even includes a lavender mesh-shirt wearing Ken doll — “c*** ring” necklace and all.
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