OPINION: Can the Barbie movie finally give us the gay Ken we deserve?

Thursday, 20 July 2023 15:25 GMT

Actor Ryan Gosling poses for pictures during a photocall for the upcoming Warner Bros. movie "Barbie" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 25, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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From Earring Magic Ken to his close “buddy” Allan, there’s no doubt Barbie’s counterpart is an LGBTQ+ icon

Jess Sims is a freelance health, culture and fashion journalist based in New York whose work has appeared in InStyle and Harper's Bazaar, among others.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie has been one of the most anticipated films in recent memory. In the campy pink, plastic bonanza, it looks like the world’s favourite plastic teen model, played by Margot Robbie, will finally face mankind’s most relatable rite of passage: Existential dread.

But what about Ken? The film’s trailers portray the chemistry between Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken as more friendly than romantic.

Could it be the LGBTQ+ community are finally about to get the gay Ken we deserve?

“Born” on March 11, 1961, new doll Kenneth Sean “Ken” Carson was closely aligned with the Rock Hudson school of American masculinity, which was a bold choice given the time period.

Many middle class white men in the 1950s and 60s were struggling with their post-war identity, worrying they didn’t measure up to their more masculine forefathers as they moved up the corporate ladder and onto college campuses.

By contrast, Ken’s creators didn’t appear to be preoccupied with playing into dominant hegemonic masculinity – perhaps due to the fact he was being marketed exclusively to prepubescent girls.

Instead, the 12-inch hunk of plastic was destined to be the perfect supporting actor for all of Barbie’s adventures. This perhaps made him unrealistic, but not necessarily gay.

And then Mattel created Allan. Michael Cera’s character in the new Barbie movie caused confusion – who is Allan, and where did he come from?

Originally introduced in 1964 as “Ken’s buddy”, the two dolls were designed to have the same build and could wear each other’s clothes. Though the doll was discontinued stateside less than two years later, Allan left his mark – and has been widely remembered as Ken’s gay boyfriend.

In a viral twitter thread from 2020, LGBTQ+ users shared their theories on the nature of his relationship with Ken. Many joked that the pair were “roommates” or adopted father and son, a reference to how some same-sex couples would use adult adoption to give their relationships a legal status before marriage equality was introduced.

Mattel never said Allan was Ken’s romantic partner, but it appears Cera has picked up the subtext behind his role.

In one interview about the movie, he described Allan as being “sort of obsessed with Ken, if not in love with him”, noting that the character had a “distant yearning” towards him.

The upcoming Barbie movie isn’t the only time in recent history that portrayals of Ken have explored his more flamboyant side.

In 2010, Ken appeared in Toy Story 3, where he had an outfit montage scene set to the 1978 disco hit “Le Freak”. Barbie and Ken aren’t a couple in the movie.

Six years previous, the vice president of Mattel’s marketing announced the dolls had ended their relationship, hinting that the split was partially due to Ken’s reluctance to “get married.” The couple eventually reconciled in 2011.

But whether or not Barbie and Ken worked it out, Mattel had already inadvertently opened the glass closet back in 1993 with the creation of Earring Magic Ken.

Released to revive Ken’s popularity, Mattel reportedly based the doll on what a focus group of children thought was popular, which was likely influenced by music channel MTV.

The toy came sporting a matching lavender mesh and leather ensemble, with one noteworthy accessory - a silver hoop necklace, which became known as Ken’s infamous cock ring.

At the time, author and journalist Dan Savage noted the doll’s interesting jewellery: “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 historians argue that Earring Magic Ken is the best-selling Ken of all time despite only being on the shelves for six months. However, we’ll never know because Mattel doesn’t talk about him - he’s been almost completely wiped from their records.

But it doesn’t look like Mattel’s reluctance to discuss gay Ken phases director and co-writer Gerwig.

When fans first saw Gosling’s costume last year, several noted how closely he resembles the infamous 1993 doll, with his blonde highlights and vest.

A snippet from one of the trailers also shows another Ken, played by Marvel’s Simu Liu, threatening both Gosling and another Ken (Kinglsey Ben-Adir) with something called a “Beach off”. Liu says he’ll “beach both of you off at the same time.” Take from that what you will.

I really hope the movie will go where Mattel never had the shareholder backing to go and acknowledge that Ken is a canonically gay icon. Because for many of us, he truly is.

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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