Mattel has been manufacturing its Barbie dolls since 1959. Shortly thereafter, it began producing dolls of Barbie's boyfriend, Ken. Girls really liked Barbie, and the doll became a certifiable cultural force, but Ken dolls never sold as well. In an effort to increase sales of Ken dolls in the early '90s, Mattel's research department worked with a group of 5-year-old girls to find out what might make them more likely to nag their parents to buy one.
This workshop of young girls, inspired by images and music videos they'd seen on the then-culture-defining MTV music video network, wanted Ken to have a cool, new look, as author Matt Haig detailed in his book "Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time." And what "cool" meant to 5-year-olds who'd seen MTV was maybe a mesh shirt. And a leather vest. And an earring, and tight pants. Oh, and maybe a flashy necklace, too.
The minds at Mattel went on to produce this version of Ken and in 1993, Earring Magic Ken was born. He wore a lavender mesh shirt, a matching purple leather vest, hip-hugging black jeans, and even had a new earring at a time when men having pierced ears in the United States was still somewhat risqué. Ken, just like the other dolls in the Earring Magic collection, even came with a human-sized clip-on earring for the kids to wear.
Ken even had a flashy, circular chrome ring dangling around his neck. But Mattel's choice for Ken's necklace would cause a row that the company would soon regret. That's because a panel of 5-year-olds generally isn't sophisticated enough to parse the subversion of gender norms, to understand the flouting of traditional masculinity, to ken the coded language of underground fashion — or to predict the cluelessness of toy designers.
At this time, we should point readers who'd rather avoid more graphic discussion of human sexuality in another direction. Perhaps you'd like to read about solar eclipses, or how 3-D printing works? You also could learn whether a giant squid could actually defeat a submarine. But if you're sticking around beyond this paragraph, things get a little more adult.
"He's always read gay," said Dan Savage, internationally renowned columnist and podcaster, in an email, "but has he ever read gayer than he did with a gay sex toy around his neck?"
Savage originally wrote about Earring Magic Ken in the summer of 1993, when much of the pop culture world was having a good laugh at Mattel's lack of understanding that while little kids saw what Prince, the members of Right Said Fred or Madonna's backup dancers were wearing simply as "cool," the adult world was clued in to how gay it was.
"It was hilarious that they thought the earring was going to be the headline-making aspect of Ken's new look," said Savage.
The doll flew off the shelves, especially since gay men, including Savage, rushed out to buy a Ken doll. The kitsch factor drove Earring Magic Ken to become the best-selling Ken doll at the time. We reached out to Mattel for comment multiple times — to find out just how well the doll sold and whether it remains the No. 1 Ken, as well as for the current regime's take on this piece of corporate history — but they did not return our requests.
Though the Earring Magic Ken incident showed that LGBTQ culture at the time had infiltrated the mainstream (or, arguably, been co-opted by it), Ken might've simply remained the butt of late-night jokes until Savage — who's since gone on to serve as one of the country's most prominent sex and relationship advice columnists — published his explanation of the gay-culture subtext communicated by wearing the sex toy.
As Savage outlined back in the 1990s, the chrome metal ring used as a sex toy was also worn as a fashion accessory among certain subsets of the queer community. The rings were used as necklaces, bracelets, zipper-pulls, and worn just about anywhere else they could be attached. And in a form of code, specific placements on clothing could imply certain sexual preferences among the gay crowd; you can read Savage's more detailed account of the nuances in the Chicago Reader's archives.
Mattel quickly pulled the dolls from the shelves and apologized for the error. Clearly, it was not their intention to associate a child's doll with an adult sex accessory.
Ultimately, Savage thinks the Earring Magic Ken incident is more of an amusing cultural blip than some kind of important moment, noting that neither the doll nor the hubbub is well-known today. "I don't think a gay man under 40 would even know what we we're talking about," he said.
Adam McDonald is a 36-year-old gay man and film critic for the Bored as Hell podcast. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said when asked about Earring Magic Ken.
Dan Savage still has his Earring Magic Ken doll, though. When asked him about it, he quickly emailed a brand-new photograph of it, sex toy and all, proving that it had left at least some impression — if nothing other than as a relic of a unique time in quickly changing American popular culture.