New-York Historical houses a vast collection of historic toys. It’s all fun and games, of course, but to us, it’s not just about kids’ play: We view toys as a unique, invaluable window onto how people of past decades lived, what they valued, and how they entertained themselves.
It’s for this reason that we’re pleased with two new additions to our toy collection, both gifts from New Yorker Roy R. Eddey: Earring Magic Ken and Billy, “The World’s First Out and Proud Gay Doll.” Both are injection-molded vinyl dolls with a flair for fashion. And both have a lot to say about the visibility, culture, politics, and humor of LGBTQ Americans during the 1990s. That decade was a time when LGBTQ themes and entertainers were finding new mainstream acceptance—from RuPaul’s hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” to the AIDS-themed, Oscar-winning movie Philadelphia to lesbian chic’s posterwoman k.d. lang. But it was also a moment of legal setbacks, like 1993’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy affecting LGBTQ people in the military and 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
What does this all have to do with two dolls? Well, for Earring Magic Ken, any LGBTQ messaging was perhaps inadvertent. Made by Mattel as part of the Barbie toy line in 1993, Earring Magic Ken was an attempt to update the style of Barbie’s longtime boyfriend Ken, who was still stuck wearing the preppy outfits he sported when he was first introduced in 1961. Mattel needed to figure out what was “cool” in the early 1990s, so they turned to a panel of experts: a group of five- to six-year-old girls, who were surveyed on what the new Ken should wear.
The result was Earring Magic Ken. This Ken had bleach blonde highlights and sported a lavender faux-leather vest and matching mesh shirt with black jeans and loafers. Ken also had acquired some intriguing jewelry: At a time when earrings on men was still considered unconventionally gender bending, Ken flashed a single earring in his left ear. He also wore a large silver ring pendant.
Maybe it was the pendant that tipped people off. Or maybe it was the whole look. Either way, as soon as Earring Magic Ken hit stores, LGBTQ commentators began to point out that the previously-assumed-to-be-straight Ken seemed a little…gay? Astute observers noted that his outfit resembled clubwear that was all the rage at the time among young gay men. And popular sex-advice columnist Dan Savage devoted a whole column to Ken’s “coming out,” paying particular attention to that unique pendant: “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 was appalled by the suggestion that their toy was wearing a sex toy and by the intimation that this represented a “queer Ken.” (Savage quoted a Mattel spokesperson who said, “C’mon, this is a doll designed for little girls—something like that would be entirely inappropriate.”) But LGBTQ consumers couldn’t unsee it. Mattel struggled to manage the controversy and eventually pulled Earring Ken from stores, resulting in a rush to buy the remaining, discontinued dolls. Although statistics have never been disclosed, Earring Magic Ken is believed to be the most financially successful Ken model that Mattel ever produced. However, the backlash against him had some long-reaching ramifications: It eliminated any real possibilities for mass-produced children’s dolls that openly identified as homosexual or transgender for at least another 30 years. New-York Historical curator Mike Thornton notes, “For kids who already know who they are, any doll play outside of the binary heterosexual norms available on the toy shelves still remains, sadly, in the closet.”
Earring Magic Ken was an accident. But our other new acquisition, Billy, was very much on purpose. Billed as “The World’s First Out and Proud Gay Doll,” Billy was a novelty doll produced for adults between 1997 and 2004. He wasn’t the first doll to be marketed as gay—that honor belongs to 1977’s short-lived Gay Bob, who came boxed in a cardboard closet. However, Billy’s out-and-proud status was embraced as a symbol of social progress for the LGBTQ community.
Billy was created by London-based artists John McKitterick and Juan Andres as a form of protest against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s discriminatory law Section 28, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and government. The artists created the Billy character in the hopes that he would promote positive ideas of gay life and increase gay visibility, while championing AIDS awareness and safer sex.
McKitterick and Andres created Billy as a fine-art sculpture that was exhibited at a London AIDS benefit in 1994 and gained wide media attention. Three years later, they approached the marketing company Totem International to launch and mass produce Billy dolls.
The Billy line included several guises, including Sailor Billy, San Francisco Billy, and Wall Street Billy, and later releases included Billy’s Puerto Rican boyfriend, Carlos and African American best friend, Tyson. The example that we’re acquiring is Master Billy, a leatherman who wears a leather harness, vest, pants, and motorcycle boots, and comes with a Muir cap. Unlike many children’s male dolls, Billy is anatomically endowed.
Upon the doll’s release, “Billy Coming-Out Parties” were staged at gay clubs in major cities as well as in the gay enclaves of Fire Island, NY, and Provincetown, MA. Through high-profile charity auctions and branded merchandise, Billy was also used to raise funds for HIV/AIDS organizations including LIFEbeat—The Music Industry Fights AIDS and Body Positive. It still had its detractors: Conservative critics wrote that it was a doll for “sexual perverts,” while gay critics believed Billy promoted sensationalized stereotypes of gay men.
But what both Billy—and to a different degree—Earring Magic Ken represented was a turning point in LGBTQ culture, when it was slowly moving out of silence and shadows and into the popular mainstream. As McKittrick said back in 1997, “I was always sure Billy would be 100 per cent successful… He is the first gay product that can be sold over-the-counter instead of under it.” It’s for this reason that New-York Historical is thrilled to welcome both into our collection.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor
Top image: Pride flag (Photographer: Benson Kua)