Doll Week

Leaving the Dollhouse

· Updated on October 4, 2023

I hated dolls for the longest time. Dolls weren’t what I wanted as a kid, but they were what everybody kept trying to give me. Every time some well-meaning relative tried to give me a doll, all it said to me was “you don’t get who I am.” It wasn’t the doll’s fault, but I resented them anyway.

“I’m not supposed to like girl stuff,” I said to the camera one Christmas, while my grandfather was filming. I was about five, and I knew exactly what boys were supposed to like and not like. As a boy, I knew I was supposed to like cars and blue things, which I did. I wasn’t supposed to like dolls, so I didn’t. It didn’t matter that everyone else saw me as a girl. I knew the rules and I followed them, because at that stage I still thought I had some control over how people saw me. At some work event my mom brought me to they were handing out toys: cars for the boys, a stuffed rabbit with an eyeshadow palette built into its face for the girls. I asked for a car and was refused. My parents said it was sexist, but I, having mispronounced this word as “sexy”, knew no end of confusion after my parents told me that “sexy” wasn’t a word. I had seen the word on a magazine cover so I knew they were lying. The incident was thereafter known as the affair of the “sexy bunny.”

I hated that bunny and everything it represented. It had cold dead eyes that stared, just like every other doll I’d ever known. There was one doll, in a yellow dress, that I tried to love. It, too, stared at me from the corner of the room when I went to bed. Try as I might, I couldn’t forget its presence. I knew something was there in the dark, watching, its eyelids incapable of closing.

But it wasn’t just the uncanny aspect I disliked: I didn’t long to brush a Barbie’s hair, I didn’t want to gaze upon the plastic, impossible bodies of grown women. I didn’t want to gaze upon bodies, period. I wanted to forget that I was in one.

But there was one thing I did like about dolls: specifically Ken dolls. They had a genital plane. My reaction to the lack of genitalia was the polar opposite of Katy Perry’s in her 2008 video “UR So Gay,” where she, in Barbie form, pulls the pants off her Ken-doll lover to find nothing there.

Some trans people seek out gender-affirming surgery to give them the genitals they want: I wanted a surgery that didn’t exist. You can’t go into a doctor’s office and ask for a genital plane—trust me, I’ve tried. You can’t ask someone to make you something other than human.

Identifying with humans has always been difficult to begin with—maybe that’s why I never played with dolls but with anthropomorphized trains like Thomas the Tank Engine, with beanie babies, with Calico Critters, tiny woodland creatures with moveable arms and legs that lived in huge houses with multiple rooms. They were just about as gender-neutral as it got for toys in those days, and I clung to them for dear life. But just about the time I came around to embracing this kind of play, it was time to grow up. Because the worst thing about loving dolls is realizing that their time in your life is finite.

In Todd Solondz’s 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener is forced to negotiate that very specific in-between place. She can’t take refuge in the Barbie-pink world of her little sister, but she can’t become an adult yet. She’s not a girl, not yet a woman. And she learns what every kid learns once they enter middle school: that all the things you loved before, the things that defined you, can’t be a source of comfort anymore. You’re on your own. Dolls will get you bullied, as will any admitted interest in all soft things belonging to childhood. When Dawn’s principal says that they’re not here to “get” her, he’s just saying out loud the message that every kid gets drilled into their heads at that age: time to grow up. Time to find a personality. Time to stop playing and get in the game. In another 90s coming of age classic, Ma Vie En Rose, trans girl Ludo is given the same message. It was all well and good for her to dress up in girl’s clothes as a child, but she’s growing up, and now people are starting to talk. It’s no wonder that Ludo retreats into a fantasy world where a Barbie analog named Pam helps embrace her feminity and allows her to be who she really is. Pam’s world is pink, girly, and safe: it’s a place where Ludo can be seen.

I think that’s why I’ve developed a gentler attitude towards dolls in my adulthood. They represent, for so many kids, a place of creative safety. And not just kids: Why shouldn’t adults embrace play? Why do we have to leave off loving toys and dolls the minute we turn 12? Who made these stupid rules, anyway?

The release of the Barbie movie feels like it’s saying that, at least a little bit. Sure, we’re all adults, and we’re living on a dying planet that’s running out of water. So why wouldn’t this be the time to dream about the things we dreamed about as kids? Why shouldn’t we embrace the hot pink desire to run back into the dollhouse? For queer people especially, that’s the place that’s always felt like home. ♦

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