doll week

A Case for Queer Icon Barbie

· Updated on October 4, 2023

In the decades since her inception in 1959, Barbie has held many titles. Famous among these over 200 careers are Astronaut Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and Madam President Barbie. As grand as those are, is there any as impressive as Gay Icon Barbie? Okay, Mattel may not include “Gay Icon” in her list of titles, but maybe that’s what makes it so impressive that she has attained it: it was through us, and not a large corporation, that Barbie has gained her place among our most beloved idols.

Barbie is in many ways a trendsetter. Yes, she is perhaps America’s favorite and most famous doll. However, Barbie is also an interesting point of conversation when discussing inclusion in the world of dolls. In 1968, Mattel released their first Black doll, and after 1989, Barbie broke the plastic ceiling with careers not historically held by women, such as various military positions, firefighter, and business executive. Since these major developments, Barbie has been developed to represent more than the thin, white, cisgender, and able-bodied character that launched her into fame.

Perhaps the greatest queer moment in Mattel’s history has been the creation of the Barbie Tribute Collection Laverne Cox Doll in 2022. Inspired by actress and activist Laverne Cox, the release of this doll marked the first time that a Barbie doll was inspired by a trans woman.

Born Barbie

Barbie has gone through many iterations, much to the improvement of the Barbie brand. Despite this expansion of Barbie, it is only recently that the doll has been considered an iconic symbol of queer aesthetics.

To understand Barbie’s popularity in queer spaces, we must consider the intrinsic femininity of the doll. Barbie was created to an absurd ideal—she is slim, tall, pretty, popular, and successful in everything she does without straying far from her pink and cream color palette and hourglass silhouette. This is not by accident. Barbie was intended as a “girl’s” doll. But it is this hyper-femininity that gives Barbie so much power over the queer imagination.

Femininity and the overall devaluation of femininity in our sociocultural environment is one of the reasons we are so likely to gravitate towards Barbie. She is powerful because of and despite her being, in the broadest sense, femme.

Queer people who, either as adults or children, identify with this feminine power that Barbie embodies are often drawn to it. Some of us as children were able to openly embrace Barbie, while others were denied the doll by adults or peers because it was deemed “girly.” It felt like you were born to play with Barbie, or you weren’t. To the latter, Barbie represented a denied world of femme aesthetics that carried on into adulthood.

Barbie has inspired and given us access to that femininity denied so often. Even the legends among us are not immune to Barbie’s power. Transgender model, performance artist, New York City nightlife legend Amanda Lepore recalls in her memoir Doll Parts that as a child, Barbie was “everything [she] wanted to be.” However, her father did everything he could to deny her femininity as a child. Ultimately, this included shearing the young Lepore’s head and forbidding her from playing with her beloved dolls. Barbie was a gateway to who Lepore was, but she was also a symbol of societal oppression. 

Barbie allows us to dream of an illusory femininity. For many, Barbie opened a world of possibility where the femme could be cultivated.

Beloved Blonde Barbie

While it could be argued that Barbie’s path of diversity and inclusion launched the doll into queer stardom, that would not be an honest telling of the phenomenon. We cannot deny the power that the original blonde Barbie has had on us all. The absurd ideal archetype is why we love Barbie.

We love blonde Barbie—she’s the one that comes to mind when the name is conjured. She’s the embodiment of perfect, unattainable femininity. She’s the one that is used as the model for Margot Robbie’s Barbie, and the one we recall when dressing in Barbiecore. Blonde Barbie is pure camp and there is no denying it. Barbie’s absurdity is an essential part of her—so much so that it is a focal point of the new movie of the same name. Barbie is artificial to a ridiculous, hilarious, and amazing extent.

Barbie is powerful because of and despite her being, in the broadest sense, femme.

We need look no further than the drag superstar Trixie Mattel to witness the unfiltered power of Barbie. Mattel has stated time and again that she is eternally inspired by the Barbie dolls and dedicates a significant portion of her YouTube channel to the dolls. Trixie takes Barbie’s absurdity to its logical extreme. The character Mattel portrays in her performances has comically sky-high blonde hair, is adorned head to toe in pink, wears wonderfully insane makeup, and is as shallow as a plastic kiddie pool.

This perfectly absurd doll inspires the queer imaginings that are attuned to feminine, campy energy. Not to mention that Barbie is as deeply ingrained in pop culture as the blonde tresses attached to her head. We really had no choice but to canonize her among the queer icons of the generation.

Beyond Barbie

There is no denying that Barbie has been a controversial figure. With some saying she represents an unrealistic ideal, and others touting her as a feminist icon. Honestly, maybe she’s both. Yes, Barbie is inherently shallow, but she is also dynamic. Barbie can embody both because she reflects us. She is molded by social ideals and reflects social desires.

Queer Icon Barbie is not something that Mattel or any other entity has power over. She exists only because we assign her the role; in a way, the queer community has constructed this role for her. We have wrested Barbie from the benign gender roles that were intended for the original doll and established something more interesting, fluid, and queer in its place. ♦

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