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.
When I came out at the age of 31 (yep, it took a while), more than one relative on that side of the family repeated the theory that the reason I was a homo was because of those G.I. Joe dolls I had as a kid.
People who understand the medical science know that a person’s sexual orientation is determined sometime before the age of two (it is almost certainly earlier, but it’s much more difficult to measure before then), so toys I received as presents at the age of seven didn’t have anything to do with it. But the claim is wrong in another way.
I never owned a G.I. Joe action figure as a child.
The original G.I. Joe was created by toy designer Stan Weston. He licensed the idea of his articulated action figure that could have a infinite number of costumes and accessories to Hasbro. The deal wasn’t an exclusive license, so Weston took Hasbro’s money and formed his own company.
Once he saw that Hasbro was going with only soldier accessories, he secured licensing deals with D.C. Comics, Marvel Comics, and King Feature Syndicate to produce a similar action figure, but one that was a something of a shape-shifter.
Captain Action’s exact shape differed from G.I. Joe in several ways, the most noticeable being that his head seemed a bit small for the body and the facial features are a little weird. The reason was that, thanks to all of those licensing deals, among the accessories you could buy for Captain Action were kits to transform him into characters such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, Steve Canyon, Buck Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and so on. Each of those kits included a “mask” that completely covered Captain Action’s face, giving him the face of the character in question.
The Christmas that I received Captain Action, I also received the Superman kit. Note that there is no action figure in the box. That is a full-head face to go over the Captain Action figure’s head, a costume, and other accessories, but no action figure.
The thing I remember most about the Superman kit is that when I put the Captain Action clothes back on the figure, I often put the red Superman boots on him. I even remember explaining to someone why I thought the red boots looked better with the Captain Action costume. I also remember that another kid swiped my Krypto the Superdog toy. And I never got it back.
The following Christmas, several relatives got me G.I. Joe accessories, because they were easier to find (and probably most of them didn’t realize that Captain Action wasn’t a G.I. Joe). They only kind of worked. Captain Action’s chest was just enough bigger than G.I. Joe’s that I couldn’t fasten the shirts and jackets that came in the G.I. Joe kits. So when my Captain Action was dressed up as a marine or a sailor, he also had his shirt open, showing off his hyper-muscled chest. It made him look like a member of the Village People—except that the band didn’t exist until ten years later.
Now that I think about it, maybe that was part of the reason that one uncle was convinced the action figures were making me gay: my Captain Action was always baring his chest!My uncle wasn’t the only person who had misgivings about boys playing with dolls. When Hasbro introduced the first G.I. Joe, they invented the term “action figure” to label and advertise it precisely because their marketing research indicated that a lot of parents were reluctant to buy a doll for a boy.
While I remember seeing figures for Dr. Evil, Captain Action’s nemesis, I don’t think I ever saw the Action Boy figure in stores. I know, from reading collectors’ web sites, that there were Action Boy figures and there were accessory kits to turn him into Robin (to go with Captain Action in the Batman kit) or Superboy.
It’s probably just as well. As I recall, my Captain Action was laying in my toy box completely naked most of the time. Whenever I wanted to play with him, I had to spend a while tracking down enough clothes and accessories to dress him up as someone. If there had been a naked Captain Action and a naked Action Boy lounging about in my toy box, that uncle would have probably had a stroke!
The ads usually pop up as Christmas time approaches: give people the gift of experiences, not things. They suggest paid excursions, theatre tickets, sports event tickets, and so on, with an appeal against consuming natural resources. As a person with a house continually crammed full of stuff that I love but don’t really have room for, I understand the sentiment.
But I’m not terribly good at following it.
While I was browsing the dealer’s den at RustyCon (a small local sci fi convention), one of the booths was filled with zillions “Rare! Hard to Find!” soundtrack albums on CD and movies on DVD. I have a weakness for soundtrack albums and started flipping through the tightly packed rows of discs. Within the first half dozen I looked at, all labeled with a price of $44.95, were two which I had happened to buy in the last year at the iTunes store. One for 9.99 and the other for 7.99.
I have no doubt that many (if not most) of the discs he had there are not available for download from iTunes or Amazon or any of the other digital music sources. And I’m sure that many of them were difficult for him to obtain. Certainly storing and transporting those enormous piles of discs isn’t cheap. So I’m not in any way disparaging the vendor.
It’s just that seeing those two albums (one originally released in 2002, the other originally released in 1975) which I had by chance purchased digitally recently made me stop to think about the situation. The reason I like owning music is to listen to it from time to time. I have a rather daunting amount of music in my digital collection, and how often any individual track is listened to is rather less often than might justify even the typical digital price of 99₵ per song. So does it really make sense to spend 45 bucks on a disc with 12 – 16 tracks on it?
I had just this last week commiserated with two friends about our shelves and shelves full of music and movies, which even though many had been digitized, we were still reluctant to get rid of because the discs now constituted the backup. But we also were all a bit frustrated at how much space they took up.
Not too many years ago I still owned a couple boxes of music albums on vinyl. I hadn’t owned a machine that could play them in a few years, so I finally admitted it was time, and got rid of them. I should mention that among those boxes was the 1975 soundtrack I mentioned above which I recently purchased digitally.
I’m afraid all this thinking about how much stuff is cluttering up the house made me steer clear of the booksellers. If I stopped acquiring new audio books and ebooks, and just focused all my reading time on the piles (multiple) of “new books to read” beside my bed, it would likely take me a few years to get through them.
I have been enjoying myself at the con. I’ve had several good conversations, attended interesting panels, and yes, I bought some things. As a person who frequently has a table with things for sale at conventions, I don’t want people to stop buying things at cons, don’t get me wrong.
I just think that I, personally, need to focus more of my enjoyment on the experience, and less on carrying home a pile of toys and such afterward.