We're not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls. —Lisa McKendall, manager of marketing and communications, Mattel Toys
Mattel's new Ken doll is on the market, and the debut of New Ken is getting almost as much press as the debut of 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 new look: his pierced left ear and his two-tone "greased lightning" hairdo.
But Earring Magic Ken is sporting another accoutrement that's been largely overlooked: hanging around Ken's neck, on a metallic silver thread, is what ten out of ten people in the know will tell you at a glance is a cock ring.
Mattel Toys, in the person of Lisa McKendall, denies everything. "Absolutely not," she said. "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." OK, 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.
Chrome cock rings like Ken's were long worn by the leather crowd on the shoulders of their biker jackets (left for top, right for bottom). In the waning years of our long national nightmare (aka 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 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 ones. But the thick chrome variety, the Classic Coke of cock rings, was and is most often worn as a pendant. 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 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.
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," said Lisa, who was 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 of popular culture or the thoughtless appropriation of queer culture by heterosexuals. Lisa seemed genuinely unaware of the origins of Ken's "necklace"—and it's highly doubtful 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 it's putting cock rings, even little plastic ones, into the hands of little girls.
Earring Magic Ken is made in China, costs around $15, and comes with a set of people-size earrings you can wear around the house or out to the bars. And while Ken now has a cock ring, he still doesn't have a cock.
"Traditionally, Ken doesn't sell as well as Barbie. Ken is a girls' toy," said Lisa. But with queers rushing out to snap him up, Mattel may be surprised at how well Cock Ring Magic Ken sells.
I already got mine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.