Some great news: there are a bunch of new Ken dolls.
The male dolls are butch and big and small wearing clothes that appear to be from a Topshop that ate a Forever 21 that ate a Zara that ate an H&M. They’re a goulash of buzzwords—Man bun! Metrosexual! Malibu!—that represent the grossness of masculinity now. While these dolls do not talk, they seem to all be chatting along to a Zedd song on the same flight to Las Vegas to drink too-sweet drinks that they will then vomit up into a pool covered in a film of tanning oil that the Barbie and friends will watch before joining in themselves. Bros before Barbies, amirite?
The irony in this re-Kenning of Ken is that it misses a huge mark: Ken always has been and always will be gay now matter how much you updated him to look like a generic man. He represents the overly manicured guy, the demigod Narcissus amongst the normies, the male person who gyms too hard to have a personality. Why? Because he’s a fucking doll. He’s an exaggerated version of maleness designed for children (specifically girls) to play with, to subvert male types by placing the power into female hands to do with Ken whatever they want. He isn’t a real man or the likeness of a real man: he is the idea of a man that is to be fucked with. Thus, this loss of agency queers Ken.
I can speak to this first hand from my own gay experience with a Ken doll. When I was eight in rural Texas, my younger brother had a birthday party when he turned six. Everyone brought gifts. It was one of those random parties where everyone brings a big wrapped box for the birthday child to participate in the now-taboo ravenous opening of presents. My younger brother—a known asshole who represents the more toxic aspects of masculinity even as a child—was tearing through box after box after box until he reached a unique item: a Shaving Fun Ken.
The gift was met with immediate protest and chastising, my brother complaining that he was not a girl and my mother making him apologize for being so rude. I, on the other hand, thought the Ken doll was the best toy to enter the house because you could play act manliness by being able to shave his face (and beyond) repeatedly. I was absolutely unoffended and, while I did not adopt him into my gay ass stuffed animal coven, I did frequently visit with the plastic maleness until he was eventually thrown away for being too divisive in a household of three boys.
Ken Handler was the son of the head of (Barbie manufacturers) Mattel, who named Barbie and Ken after his two children. Ken, the book reports, grew up to be gay and lived a sadly closeted life, having married and fathered three children. He died in 1994 after living with AIDS and reportedly “grew up embarrassed and humiliated by having an anatomically incorrect boy doll named after him,” which adds some tragedy to the discovery that our gaydar can work on inanimate objects.
Interesting. Very interesting and, obviously, upsetting.
Ken gets even queerer when you consider another monster: Magic Earring Ken. This creature was released two years before my own familial Shaving Fun Ken mishap and was more forwardly gay. Buzzfeed explains.
Released in 1993, Earring Magic Ken became a huge seller among gay men, which was mainly due to the way he was dressed — and the fact that he appeared to be wearing a “cock ring” as a necklace. While the doll was a big seller, it was discontinued and remaining dolls were recalled. It also led to Mattel having to issue this interesting statement: “We’re not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls.”
That is quite a quote.
The situation didn’t end there as Dan Savage even wrote about the debacle extensively at the time.
On closer inspection, Ken’s entire Earring Magic outfit turns out to be three-year-old rave wear. A purple faux-leather Gaultier vest, a straight-out-of-International Male purple mesh shirt, black jeans and shoes. It would seem Mattel’s crack Ken-redesign team spent a weekend in LA or New York dashing from rave to rave, taking notes and Polaroids.
Ken’s redesign was prompted by the advice of little girls who play with him. “Two years ago we did a survey,” Lisa McKendall said. “We asked girls if Barbie should get a new boyfriend or stick with Ken. They wanted Barbie to stay with Ken, but wanted Ken to look a little cooler.”
And what’s cool in the USA right now? What’s hip? Queers. Turn on MTV and watch the seven-foot-tall drag queen strut her fine stuff for the heartland. Lesbian comics on Arsenio (how far he’s come!). Gay and lesbian activists in the Oval Office chatting up the president. A live feed of the March on Washington running on C-Span.
See? History repeats itself, for girls (or, now, young queer boys) to pal around with objects representative of exaggerated maleness that may or may not be based in queer cultural runoff.
Moreover—and most importantly to “new” Ken dolls—is that no Ken or Barbie runoff toy will ever have a G.I. Joe appeal to non-queer boys or their parents for at least another decade. Toy biases still exist amongst gender roles, where dolls are locked into a world for girls thusly locking these contemporary male likenesses into a category apart from the heteronormative cis dude point of departure.
Thus, Ken is gay. You can closet him in Vegas EDM vibes all you want but know that he is still gay.