In 1993 Mattel decided that Barbie’s boyfriend needed to look “cooler,” so they introduced Earring Magic Ken, complete with an earring in his left ear, black pants with pink stitching, a mesh T-shirt under a shiny purple vest and a silver necklace.
Because he looked like a stereotypical 1990s gay man dressed for a rave, Earring Magic Ken became known as Gay Ken or Alternative Lifestyle Ken, causing an uproar among parents.
Many thought Ken’s silver necklace looked like a “chrome cock ring,” but this was denied by Lisa McKendall, manager of marketing and communications for Mattel Toys.
“We’re not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls,” she said.
The controversy, amplified by The New York Times, CNN, People magazine and talk-show host Jay Leno, only helped sales. Earring Magic Ken was immensely popular, especially among gay men, and remains a collectors’ item to this day.
But as quickly as he came out, Ken was put back in the closet.
Shortly after Dan Savage wrote an article for gay newspaper The Stranger saying, “Queer Ken is the high-water mark of, depending on your point of view, either queer infiltration into popular culture or the thoughtless appropriation of queer culture by heterosexuals” and insisted Ken’s gay look could be no coincidence, Mattel stopped manufacturing the doll and recalled the ones already on shelves.