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The writer never imagined identifying with Barbie. But Greta Gerwig’s thought-provoking portrait of the doll’s rude awakening of experiencing misogyny in the real world mirrored the author’s own coming-out experience.
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Warning: Light spoilers ahead.
I never believed I had a right to play with Barbies. Though I wasn’t exactly the stereotypical tomboy who thought girl stuff was stupid, I was an awkward child who found the vision of femininity quite literally embodied in Barbie so unattainable, it was safer to deem it frivolous. I wanted to be one of the popular girls, or at least the normal girls, the Barbie girls who seemed more at ease smooching their plastic surrogates with boyfriends in dream houses. Barbie girls liked boys, and liked being liked by boys.
Becoming utterly devoted to my few good girl friends, I nurtured a history of platonic passions that continued well into college. When I cringed at news of those friends’ first kisses, wept in private after hearing of their “first times,” I thought I was grieving the great distance that opened between us. They stood on the fertile, yet cleanly landscaped side of the chasm as “normal women”; my side was wild and overgrown, a jungle of thwarted, inchoate longing. By the time co-writer and director Greta Gerwig’s cinematic take on Barbie arrived in theaters, almost two months after my 41st birthday, I would finally have a name for that longing. A reason why I was awestruck and alienated from the Barbie girls of my youth. I was—I am—gay.
While I’m a fan of Gerwig’s other films, I never expected to relate to Barbie. And yet, as that perfect blonde—whose beauty and blessed normalcy always eluded me—pierces the veil of her life in plastic, emerging into a world that is terrifying and exhilarating, brutally limiting and open enough to let in joy, raw and real in the full spectrum of best and worst, I saw my own journey as a late-blooming lesbian.
Barbie is not expressly a queer film (there are, apparently, limits to the famous latitude Mattel gave Gerwig). It is, however, a film about occupying liminal spaces: Barbie is the epitome of cover-girl desirability, but wholly uninterested in conventional ideas about sex and romance. One of the movie’s savviest moments comes after a blow-out party, when Ryan Gosling’s Ken leans toward Barbie (Margot Robbie) and casually suggests that he stay over at her dream house, since they are, after all, “girlfriend-boyfriend.” Barbie, all doe-eyed earnestness, asks, “To do what?” The unspoken answer (which even Ken himself is unaware of) is, of course, the funny part. To do what men and women must always, inevitably do. Indeed, Gosling’s role as arguably the internet’s first boyfriend, inspiration behind the “Hey Girl” memes with their vision of a strong yet sensitive millennial heartthrob, also fuels the bit with sly supposition: Who wouldn’t want Ryan “Hey Girl” Gosling to stay overnight?
If Barbie were released years earlier, I’d count myself among those elder millennial women who absolutely would. In my 20s, I admired Gosling often and loudly enough that friends and co-workers teased me for it, and gave me a “Hey Girl” book for my birthday. But my celebrity crushes became a crutch, a way to navigate through the world of men and desire without fully setting foot into it. As the people around me laughed at Barbie’s mild befuddlement at being invited to do what men and women must always, inevitably do, I recalled moments when I sat across from perfectly nice, perfectly handsome, perfectly intelligent guys, blinking politely at insinuations for me to come over, or for him to stay over. Feeling none of the temptation or desire that my fellow straight women friends described. Only annoyance, even repulsion. Thinking: “To do what?”
At that party, which comes at the end of a day filled with the rituals of Barbieland—from perfect breakfast to perfect drive, perfect spell of visiting her perfect friends at their high-powered jobs, to another perfect afternoon at the beach—Barbie has a record-scratch of an epiphany: the prospect of a force far larger and more transformative than her workaday life of lather, beach, repeat. “Do you guys every think about dying?” she asks her friends, who do not, in fact, think of anything beyond life as they’ve always known it.
All I knew was the accumulation of indignities, like when my mother mocked me for my obsessive zeal to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or called a college friend that I created a shared sketchbook with “weird.” As a daughter of the ’90s and the aughts, I saw pop culture Sapphics (or Sapphic-adjacent characters) like Xenia: Warrior Princess or Willow Rosenberg broadly mocked or enduring countless tragedies. Even acerbic anti-heroines like the cartoon Daria were eventually normalized with boyfriends. From my perch in the suburbs, my earliest sights of women being sexual with other women was Girls Gone Wild, clips laced with the poison of sarcasm and male titillation. The message was clear: Normal girls liked boys and liked being liked by boys. Anything that deviated from that blunt reality was too weird to be right. While the swaddle around my life was hardly pink-washed perfection, it held me fixed in place like any other doll guided by an unseen hand.
Comparing the plasticine dream of Barbieland—where all women are powerful and cherished—to the concept of compulsive heterosexuality, a term Adrienne Rich coined to describe heterosexuality as “something that has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by force,” feels a bit blasphemous. Yet even if I would happily take that pink Corvette ride down the pink-bricked road while warbling the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” I understand Barbie’s profound sense of failure when the routines that have sustained her start to crumble, broken by a stubborn, inconvenient awareness that she is not like the other Barbies.
Her initiation into the real world is catalyzed by the choice presented by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, out and proud in real life) the most queer-coded Barbie—she is, after all, “always in the splits,” a possible allusion to a certain activity many a curious girl performed with two Barbies: a pink heel and a Birkenstock (itself a tip of the beret to The Matrix, trans allegory extraordinaire). Queer women offered me my own moments of revelation. At an adult coloring party, a woman stroked my arm with a lingering, meaningful tenderness. Under her touch, and the honeyed brightness of her eyes, the stalks of my deadened nerves attained new life and color. Crackling with a sudden awareness of my body that delighted and excited and terrified me in a delectable way, I was so discombobulated, I missed my exit home. A sensation I’d heard my friends describe as desire. Once I knew it, I couldn’t ignore it.
My question is the question that will also haunt Barbie once she meets Gloria (America Ferrera), the woman who has been playing with her in a pique of nostalgia. Gloria’s memories—sumptuous with the ache of longing, full of the grit and luminosity that is human emotion, most of all, love—are not about dying. Confronted with the fullness of the world, the rot and ripeness of it, Barbie’s question is whether to consider living in a world that will never fully accept her. Barbie’s exposure to the real world is fraught with menace, from ass-grabbers to fumbling male executives who cloak their stranglehold over corporate power with a tapestry of daughters and mothers and aunts and a woman CEO, once, decades earlier. In tandem with the jingoism of everyday patriarchy, Barbie also invokes the ire of Gloria’s teen daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who dresses her down as a vapid fool, only good for upholding fascist beauty standards.
Barbie’s shock at the cruelty she endures for simply existing recalled the first times I connected the tsunami of violently anti-queer sentiment—slurs of “groomer,” threats to legislate trans people out of existence, and the smug prevarication of good moderates who think it’s perfectly reasonable for businesses to “serve who they want to”—bearing down across the country, with myself. Insulated with layers of privilege that many people in my community lack—chief among them, until recently, what I presumed to be “straight” privilege—I never fully absorbed the horror of realizing how profoundly I am hated, by so many people.
On one of my earliest dates, I stood outside of my car, holding hands with another woman, a silent current of intrigue passing between our bodies, drawing us into a kiss. That current crackled and faded under the sudden footfalls of passersby—whose stares might carry more than amusement or casual scolding, but a malevolence I never learned to fear whenever I kissed men in public. Still, my most vivid memory of that night is not fear: It’s her long hair sweeping over my exposed throat, that ticklish stirring of pleasure in the center of my chest and a tender place far below it. Being my real self in the real world is more perilous than sleepwalking through a safer life, but it’s forever worth it.
Choosing to live authentically doesn’t liberate us from insecurity. In one of the movie’s most poignant sequences, an overwhelmed and humiliated Barbie weeps to Gloria that, even in Barbieland, she’s not special: “I’m not smart enough to be interesting. I can’t do brain surgery. I’ve never flown a plane. I’m not president. No one on the Supreme Court is me. I’m not good enough for anything.” Gloria’s response is a searing monologue about the impossibilities of being a woman, trying to thrive in the invisible cracks threading the façade of being extraordinary all the time—while “somehow, we’re always doing it wrong.” While this speech, and the pain it is meant to soothe, has resonated with so many women, it holds a unique pathos for me—scared I’m too old, too awkward, too hopelessly uncool to be truly queer. If I only discovered this elemental truth about myself so late in life, and practically by accident, how could I not be doing it wrong?
When Barbie is given the chance to resume her life in the dream house—not exactly as it was, but a peaceable facsimile—she’s still drawn more to the potential of the real world, with its kaleidoscope of feelings. The chance to know all the colors of life, not just pink. Even though pink is beautiful. Barbie is aware of her own imperfections. She’s anticipating the pain of being in a place steeped in unfairness, in a body that will age and someday die. Still, she chooses to live. To feel.
Coming out won’t shelter me from hurt—if anything, it’s exposed me to more of it. Still, it’s not the pain of holding an unknown truth inside my skin, a potency that ticked and throbbed into numbness. Until I could name it. Choose to make it real. I may not have been a Barbie girl, as a little girl. I will never be able to say I knew passion and pleasure in my youth. But like the movie Barbie, closing her eyes and taking in the totality of her desires, I am giving myself permission to learn what I was made for. To govern my own heart, honestly. Without expectation of perfection. Even if I’m doing it wrong, it’s what I was made for.
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