As news of Barbie’s 60th birthday spread over the weekend, many reflected on the plastic doll’s impact on young girls. But what about her male admirers?
Since her inception in 1959, Barbie and her signature pink have witnessed a complete cultural revolution. Originally only equipped with a limited selection of occupations — such as “nurse” or “flight attendant” — today’s Barbies are CEOs, doctors, and presidents. Barbie was once one size fits all — now Mattel’s 2019 line comes in three body types, seven skin tones, and a range of ability levels. Today’s Barbie hopefully allows girls a diverse world in which to imagine.
However, as a young boy, Barbie opened up my world, too.
As most LGBTQ people are aware, the intensely gendered world of children has strict binaries for what children can and can not do. Girls can play with Barbies and dress-up, while boys are expected to play with toys like trucks, dinosaurs, or rockets.
As a shy gay kid in suburban Missouri, I was not interested in loud war games or monster trucks. The sports-focused play most of my male peers engaged in seemed both brutish and nightmarish.
What I was interested in were my sister’s Barbies.
The dolls' intense feminity, signaled by their beautifully painted faces and long shining hair, called to me as a gay toddler. After two of my sister’s dolls mysteriously disappeared — only to reappear without heads — my parents reacted quickly and gave me my own pair of dolls.
The dolls allowed me to imagine a world where I felt safe to express myself. I could brush Barbie’s hair for hours and change her outfit on a whim without feeling judged. In retrospect, the hours I spent imagining and accessorizing the lives of Barbies were some of my first formative queer experiences as the dolls offered a quick break from heteronormative realities and an outlet for my own fledging queerness.
However, as I got older, play became political once again. I realized that I was not “supposed” to play with Barbies. They were a girl’s toy and I was a boy.
I began hiding my interest in Barbies and other feminine toys from the outside world, sneaking in bouts of imaginative playtime behind closed doors. Masking my love of Barbie was one of my first steps into the closet. Long before I had any idea of what being gay meant, I understood that I should not be seen playing with Barbies.
While I haven’t played with Barbies since pre-school, the doll still has an impact on my life. Barbie’s infectious pink-infused energy can be found in the performances of my favorite female pop-stars and drag queens. Watching those performers express themselves and their feminity while being surrounded by other queer people often serves as the highlights of my weekends. Perhaps, I’m looking for the same sort of imaginative freedom at drag shows as I had while playing with Barbie.
Today’s expectations of gender aren’t as rigid than those of my childhood. Hopefully, future queer children will be free to express themselves in whatever play they choose. But for all of the young boys who found solace in Barbie’s plastic over the past 60 years, I would like to say: Thank you, Barbie.
ALEXANDER MODIANO is an intern at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @alex_modiano.