My Western Winking Barbie had a white cowboy hat, feathered blonde hair, and a shimmery white, fringed jumpsuit with black piping and boots. When you pressed her back, she would “wink” flirtatiously, lowering one powder-blue shaded eyelid. Eventually, the mechanism for the eyelid wore out, causing her to look like she might have had a stroke. But that’s OK, because Barbie can do anything, including surviving a stroke.
She was my first and only Barbie. Although my parents weren’t super-crazy about buying their only boy a Barbie, they eventually relented. It is still my favorite thing they ever got for me, and it ranks above raising me in a loving home and providing me an education.
I was not unlike many little gay boys who loved (and still love) Barbie. She wasn’t like the other stupid baby dolls that wet their pants. Barbie had a life. And in my little gay-boy mind, Barbie and her Barbie friends lived for drama. On rainy afternoons at daycare, we would take out carpet squares and play indoors. The girls always had what seemed like a treasure trove of Barbie paraphernalia that included houses, cars, trailers, apartments, clothes, and furniture. I envied them as they pulled out all of their Barbie stuff.
I would watch them take out the Barbies and groom them and change their outfits. I would judge them as they fumbled with trying to tell the story of Barbie’s life or unfashionably arrange the Barbie furniture. These little girls never had quite the designer’s eye that I did. I knew that Barbie had a story to tell. I was an early expert on television dramas like Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest. I was eager to fill the role of executive producer, and it was my job to bring these girls along with me.
I would strategically insinuate myself into their play. Ken was my entry point, of course, but he was quickly tossed aside as I began taking over higher-ranking Barbies. Ken to start, then maybe a Skipper. On rare occasions, I would get a main Barbie, but I had to play it cool. The girls could at any point alert the other mean boys to my interest in “girl toys,” and they would then ruin my life. However, if I played my cards right, what would unfold would be a multi-dimensional drama that included sex and betrayal. Love won and lost. A funeral for a Ken who died young, leaving a widowed Barbie to pick up the pieces. So tragic.
I loved Barbie.
I always understood, on some level, that the world did not understand or accept a little boy like me who played with Barbies. Barbies were for girls, after all. In third grade, I was betrayed by a friend named Ali when she revealed to the class that I had spent the weekend at her house playing Barbies. Everyone, especially the mean boys, ridiculed me and called me a “girl,” which was apparently a terrible thing to be. Even the girls—without a wisp of irony—called me a “girl.” (When we grew out of playing with Barbies, the word “girl” was traded for “faggot.” But I digress.)
Most of the other mean boys seemed to hate Barbie. They considered her to be frivolous, and the children who enjoyed Barbies were equally as frivolous. That’s not to say that they invited the girls (and gay boys) to join in their activities. But if we attempted to, we were met with hostility and criticism for “catching like a girl,” “running like a girl” or just, in fact, being a girl. According to these mean boys, all things “girl” (aka Barbie) were bad. That’s the messaging we got very early on.
But the girls (and gay boys) who played Barbies found her to be empowering. She was our vessel to a world where our imagination could run wild, where Barbie was front and center and Ken sat in the dustbin unless he was needed for a Ken funeral. (I don’t know why I always wanted Ken to be dead, but we will leave that for my therapist.) The mean boys never understood that about Barbie, and they still don’t.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the $150 million premiere of the summer blockbuster movie Barbie. This accomplishment was fueled by women, girls, and gay men’s nostalgia for Barbie and their memories of escaping as a child through her.
But many of the mean boys who are now mean men still don’t seem to get it. They want Barbie to exist for their pleasure only. To be valued for the aesthetics that men value. They want that other stuff—the independence, the career, the powerful femininity—to go away. Barbie, in their opinion, is better seen and not heard. They think Barbie 2023 has become too “woke.” Since her creation, Barbie has always been “woke” for the reasons described above. Maybe they’re just too “asleep” to understand that.
Women, girls, and gay men aren’t going to the Barbie movie in droves because it simply trots out Barbie in a beautiful gown and calls it a day. They are going because the Barbie movie is telling the story about Barbie that we always understood on some level. Barbie has layers—and I am not talking about crinoline. She can do anything, be anything, have anything. Barbie isn’t rejected or limited by men. She cares not about how Ken’s gaze falls upon her. She can even be trans!
Barbie does not exist to delight or pleasure Ken or the mean boys. Whether they approve or not, she’s still going to be an astronaut by day and a disco queen by night. She’s there to spark the imagination of the children who see something in her, which too many mean boys are conditioned to often miss. Try as they might, the concept, the idea of Barbie can’t be suppressed. Barbie isn’t perfect, of course; she has no nipples or genitals and is made of plastic. But Barbie transcends the subjective concept that is perfection.
What Barbie 2023 shows me is that those mean boys who are now mean men still only value women based on what they can see with their eyes. Barbie doesn’t technically have a functional mirror (although Winking Western Barbie does have an autograph stamp) because Barbie is the mirror. What Barbie is reflecting in 2023 is that her new movie is speaking to women (and gays) in a way that mean men are still failing to comprehend.
If box-office dollars translate to votes, Barbie may end up teaching the mean men a lesson in the end: Never underestimate Barbie.