One weekend way back in 1992, my late husband Ray and I were having brunch at the old Hamburger Mary’s in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I was reading the local snarky alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger when I read about Mattel’s latest edition to the Barbie toy line: Magic Earring Ken. He was being written about in the snarky paper because one of the many so-called Christian anti-gay organizations had sent out an alert to their supporters explaining how Mattel had released a Gay Ken, marketing it to children, and each doll came with a sex toy! They helpfully published a 1-800 number where people could call Mattel and tell them they were going to boycott the company. And apparently a lot of them did, prompting the company to issue a statement trying to explain that the Ken wasn’t gay and there certainly wasn’t a sex toy included.
The reason the wingnuts had gotten up in arms about Gay Ken was because a couple of weeks earlier, Sex Advice Columnist Dan Savage had mentioned in his column that he had seen this so-called Gay Ken. He noted that the clothes and hair style of the doll would not have looked out of place in the West Hollywood a couple of years previously, but wasn’t exactly super stylish any more, but that every gay man would recognize a piece of jewelry that came with the doll as something they usually only used while having sex.
Because Dan hadn’t said what the jewelry was, and then the wingnut pastor (who I’m sure was only following Dan’s column to keep tabs on a notorious queer—except this was 1992, and Dan wasn’t really famous or notorious, yet) had called it a sex toy, apparently a lot of his followers assumed that doll was being sold with a dildo or vibrator and they really confused the poor people answering the phones at Mattel, let me tell you.
Later that day, Ray and I scoured a few toy stores until we found Magic Earring Ken, and we bought two of them. Ray named them Ken and his boyfriend Ben. He decided they needed to be displayed like art, and got a couple of doll stands so they could stand atop a shelf we had in our living room in the teeny studio we were living in at the time.
I have seen people post on tumblr and other places a very wrong version of how the doll got designed. It had nothing to do with trying to make Ken look like someone at a rave. It had a much more innocent origin. The designer responsible was interviewed for several magazines after the incident. She was looking for new ideas for the next year’s Ken—because a survey the company had done asking girls whether Barbie should get a new boyfriend, had returned the results that girls wanted Barbie to stay with Ken, but that wanted Ken to be “cooler.” The designer, realizing one of her nieces was exactly in the age group that played with Barbies, took her niece and several of the nieces friends out for ice cream at a mall. And there, she asked the girls to point out all the boys who they thought were dressed “cool.” As people walked by, the girls would point out guys (usually older teens or college-age looking), and the designer took notes and made quick sketches of the clothes and hairstyles.
She was not aware that the chrome metal ring some of the young men were wearing on chains around their necks were cockrings. And truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the guys wearing them didn’t know, any more than a lot of the girls in the mid-eighties inspired by Madonna started wearing silicon cockrings as bracelets. And also, most of those guys probably weren’t gay. It’s often been the case that certain marginalized groups, including by not limited to queers, establish fashion trends that get copied subsequently by other folks.
Based on follow up conversations with some of girls and her notes, she designed a new look for Ken. And the next year (1992) it came out. It was selling as expected for at least a month before someone writing for another gay paper somewhere saw it, wrote a short humorous article calling the doll a Gay Twink. And Dan found out about it, and things were from there.
Contrary to what many of those other blog posts claim, there was also a Earring Magic Barbie and several other members of the Barbie line got an Earring make-over. But only Ken’s makeover looked gay. And as word spread about the Gay Ken, thousands of queer men like Ray and I ran out to buy them. Magic Earring Ken became the best selling model of Ken in the history of the Barbie line.
But, because of the controversy, Mattel decided to stop making or selling that model.
Our two dolls didn’t just stand around gathering dust. No, Ken and Ben became an ongoing art project for Ray. It started innocently enough, we both decided they shouldn’t always dress identically, so we picked up some other Ken outfits and started mixing an matching. Then Ray found more toy props, so he could pose them sitting at a table, drinking coffee. And of course more outfits. After we moved to a larger apartment, Ray bought Barbie’s dune buggy. Then the pink Barbie jeep. And a G.I. Joe. And another action figure (I don’t remember which cartoon show he was from, but he had a weird tattoo on his chest). And more outfits. And a Shaving Magic Ken. I found a Christmas tree that was just the right size for them to stand around at Christmas time. Ray found multiple sweaters, include two different designs of ugly Christmas sweaters that fit them.
Month after month, Ray would change the the clothes on all the dolls, and change out the props to fit with the season. In the summer they would all be in swimsuits or wet suits and have the dune buggy and surfboard, for instance. And every year the Christmas party scene would get a bit more elaborate.
Until Ray died.
The last setup he did was for Halloween. He’d found some things that could be cheesy costumes for some of the dolls, and a little jack o’lantern, and I think a little toy black cat that was the right size. On the night we were discussing Thanksgiving plans, he made a comment about changing Ken and Ben’ clothes and setting all the boys around one table like a Thanksgiving Dinner. Later that night, in the wee small hours, Ray had the seizure that led to the coma and ultimately his death.
I left Ken and Ben and the others in the Halloween set up for a few weeks. I wasn’t in a mood to change them (or really do anything for a few months, to be honest). I decided not to decorate from Christmas that year, until one evening I got hit by the irrational thought that Ray would be very disappointed with me if I didn’t put up at least something. So Ken and Ben and the others went into a box. I bought few Christmas things (because I knew if I tried to unpack any of our big collection of Christmas ornaments and such I would start crying and might not be able to stop) set them up on top of the entertainment center, which had been Ken and Ben’s stage for years.
I did eventually get Ken and Ben and the others out of the box, changed their clothes, and posed them in a not terribly interesting way. It had been Ray’s project, and while I loved helping him do it, it just wasn’t the same without him. After Michael and I got together, he would occasionally make suggestions to change the boys up a bit. But it still wasn’t the same. A couple years later, that entertainment center was getting wobbly. It had been a cheap particle board kit and was at least 8 years old. And while looking for a replacement (and making considerably more money than I had been 8 years prior), I found this enormous, beautiful, solid oak entertainment center that I just had to have.
It was so much taller than the old one, that I couldn’t really see Ken and Ben when they were up there, and changing their clothes and such required a small step ladder. So I packed up a lot of the accessories (the jeep, dune buggy, tables, chairs, et cetera) and most of the dolls, and took them to Goodwill. I kept Ken and Ben, though. I was thinking I should hang onto them if for no other reason, as a monument to a particularly weird and funny pop culture/queer culture collision.
I thought that Ken and Ben were still packed away somewhere in the computer room closet, but when we were packing to move out of that place last April, I didn’t find them in the box I thought they were in. I was a bit perturbed, but figured that at some point in the unpacking I would find them. But they weren’t in any of the boxes from other closets that hadn’t been opened for years. Nor were then in any of the boxes in the basement in a similar state.
I know what probably happened is that one of the times in the last ten years when I would make attempts to go through all of the Too Much Stuff™ that we had at the old place, that I decided to finally donate Ken and Ben to Goodwill or Value Village or the like. But I don’t remember doing it. So I’d rather believe that they got tired of being boxed up and forgotten. They staged an escape and ran off together—two twinks in love, looking for adventure.