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Mattel's new Ken doll is on the market. New Ken is getting almost as much press as New Coke did. Since his introduction at a toy convention in New York City in February, Ken's been everywhere, including the front page of the New York Times's Arts and Leisure section. Why the hoopla? Ken's first piercing -- his left ear -- and his two-tone "greased lightning" hairdo. But an important part of "Earring Magic" Ken's new wardrobe has been overlooked by the straight media -- Ken's cock ring. Hanging around Ken's neck, on a metallic silver thread, is what ten out of ten fags will tell you at a glance is a cock ring.
Mattel Toys, in the person of marketing and communications manager Lisa McKendall, denies the ring around Ken's neck is a cock ring. "Absolutely not," she says. "We're not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls. It's a necklace. It holds charms he can share with Barbie. C'mon, this is a doll designed for little girls, something like that would be entirely inappropriate." Okay, Lisa, let's call it a necklace. Queers have been wearing cock rings as necklaces for years.
When they're not fashion statements, cock rings are worn around the base of your cock or your close personal friend's cock if you don't have one of your own. Slip one on when you're soft; once you're hard, it traps blood in the penis, increasing sensitivity and prolonging orgasm. From a utilitarian point of view, that's an absolute good, a win/win scenario.
Chrome cock rings, like Ken's, were long worn by the leather crowd on the shoulders of their biker jackets (left for tops, right for bottoms). In the waning years of our long national nightmare (a.k.a. the Reagan-Bush years), younger gay-boy-activist-types with brand-new leather jackets took to wearing cock rings on whichever side looked best or, to the horror of the leather crowd, on both sides. Tops? Bottoms? Versatile? Clueless? Who knew? Then newly minted sex-positive dykes started wearing them -- cocks or not, they didn't want to miss out on any of the sex-positive accessorizing.
Cock rings exploded (ouch!) -- as vest zipper pulls, as key rings, as bracelets; rubber ones, leather ones, chain mail. But the thick chrome variety, the Classic Coke of cock rings, was and is most often worn as a necklace. Chrome cock-ring necklaces became de rigueur rave wear. For about a year, every gay boy at a rave was wearing at least one -- these cock rings were often pressed into service later in the evening, to help totally tweaked ravers keep up what the X was pulling down.
On closer inspection, Ken's entire Earring Magic outfit looks like three-year-old rave wear. A Gaultier purple faux-leather 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 L.A. 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 says. "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 are. Turn on MTV and watch the seven-foot-tall drag queen (we're all praying she isn't a one-hit wonder) strut her fine stuff for the heartland. Lesbian comics on Arsenio (how far he's come! -- thank you, Queer Nation). Gay and lesbian activists in the Oval Office chatting up the president. A live feed of the Queer March on Washington running on C-Span.
Suddenly it's hip to be queer. The little girls of our great nation wanted a hipper Ken, and Mattel gave them a hip Ken. A queer Ken.
"Ken and Barbie both reflect mainstream society, reflect what little girls see in their world," says my pal Lisa, getting awfully testy about my line of questioning. "What they see their dads, brothers, and uncles wearing, they want Ken to wear."
As nice as Lisa is (which isn't very), I'm not sure I buy her reasoning. How many dads out there are running around with cock rings dangling from chains around their necks? How many mesh shirts does International Male sell to the Junes and Wards of our great nation? What the little girls were seeing, and telling Mattel was cool, wasn't what their relations were wearing -- unless they had hip-queer relatives -- but the homoerotic fashions and imagery they were seeing on MTV, what they saw Madonna's dancers wearing in her concerts and films, and, as it happens, what ACT UP/Queer Nation fags and dykes were wearing to demos and raves.
When you've made it to the aisle of Toys R Us, your movement has arrived -- remember the sudden appearance of African-American Barbie-style dolls after the full impact of the civil rights movement began to be felt? 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. Lisa seems genuinely unaware of the origins of Ken's "necklace" -- and it's highly doubtful that Mattel's design teams were lurking at queer raves. Queer imagery has so permeated our culture that from rock stars (Axl Rose and his leather chaps) to toy designers, mainstream America isn't even aware when it's adopting queer fashions and mores. Or when they are putting cock rings, even little plastic ones, into the hands of little girls.