Barbie Helped Me Navigate the World of Girls
As a queer, autistic kid, my obsession with Barbies helped me approach friendship and femininity without fear of rejection.In Depth
Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
One summer evening when I was 6, I had a fight with my mother and decided to run away from home. I packed two fruit crates with the only thing I considered necessary for my survival: my collection of Barbies.
I made it as far as our battered Renault 5 parked in the driveway and set up camp in the back seat, surrounded by Barbies and all their accessories. After an hour or two of sulking, my mother, trying very hard not to laugh at my makeshift camp, coaxed me home with the promise of chicken nuggets and french fries. I have no idea what the fight was about, but one thing was clear: When the shit went down, it was me and my Barbies against the world.
As a very young child who people readily identified as a girl, I received multiple gifts of baby dolls, many with their own strollers. Most, if not all, of these were rejected without a second thought. But sometime around 4 or 5 Barbie found her way into my life, and it was love at first sight. Love, fueled by daytime TV advertising and my compulsion for collecting, soon turned into obsession.
One of the most pervasive stereotypes about autistic children is that we’re supposed to like trains. If we fail to show an interest in trains we may even risk not meeting the diagnostic criteria for autism. I have nothing against trains—in fact, I love a good ride—but Barbie was all I had time for. As obsessions go, I was in good company. There was hardly a girl my age who didn’t play with Barbies, and so the intensity of my special interest, as well as my undiagnosed autism, went unnoticed.
Barbie was more than just a doll to me: She kept me company in a world where making friends with girls was extremely difficult. I was content to spend hours alone, imagining fantasies for us to share. When I did attempt to make friends with other girls, Barbie helped me connect through play that was focused on doing her hair, dressing her up, and acting out adventures. Under these conditions, my propensity to misunderstand the rules of being a girl, to say or do the wrong thing, often went unnoticed. Barbie became a safe way to practice being in that world without the rejection and exclusion that my social faux pas might’ve caused. Still, I preferred to play alone.
My principal goal became the infinite expansion of my Barbie Queendom. Each new Barbie was a potential friend who, despite her beauty, popularity, and style, would never turn her nose up at my weird clothes nor whisper about me behind my back, as real girls were prone to do. (My favorite was Totally Hair Barbie; in an attempt to imitate her ankle-length crimped hair, my mother spent many a Sunday evening in front of the fire braiding my hair into tiny plaits so I could go to school the next day looking like a mini brunette Cyndi Lauper.) The financial realities of my family, however, imposed reasonable limitations on my unreasonable ambitions. As a single mother of three children, surviving on paltry state benefits and monthly child support checks that came late or not at all, my mother had little left over for frivolities. Barbie and her expanding universe of clothes, friends, pets (dogs, horses, orcas), sports equipment (snorkels, skis, rollerblades), little sisters (Skipper and Kelly), and vehicles (cars, houses, boats) were luxuries we could scarcely afford.
So I crafted mansions out of discarded shoe boxes or Legos. As for Ken, I counted on my brothers’ G.I. Joes or Action Men if Barbie ever felt lonely or, ehm, restless. Aside from the odd Emotional Blackmail Barbie I occasionally received from my father, birthdays and Christmas became my principal opportunities to expand the Queendom.
It’s not unusual for autistic people’s interests to be labelled immature or unhealthy, even when they pose no harm to ourselves or others.
The obsession reached unhealthy levels when I asked Santa for the Barbie Dream Boat that Mattel had been pushing for months in ads between my favorite cartoons. I daydreamed about all the wild splash parties my Barbies and I would have as I pushed the boat around our playroom’s blue carpet. Christmas morning came and, instead of a Barbie-sized cruise ship, I found a mountain bike sitting under the tree. A casual observer might consider this a far superior present for a girl of 10, but such an observer fails to understand the nature of obsessions. I had the meltdown to beat all meltdowns.
And then, long before I was ready to let go, Barbie became something that no girl of 12 would be seen dead playing with. Socializing with girls evolved from jump-rope and enacting Barbie weddings to standing around and gossiping about boys. The death knell came on a visit to my cousins, when I suggested we play Barbies and my older cousin responded with undisguised scorn, “You still play with Barbies?” The comment made me so self-conscious about my desire to stay in the safe world of Barbies that I voluntarily stopped playing with them.
It’s not unusual for autistic people’s interests to be labelled immature or unhealthy, even when they pose no harm to ourselves or others. In the interests of “fitting in” and “acting my age,” I turned on Barbie and most other things little and big girls enjoyed. By the end of the summer, my mother had convinced me to (or coerced me into?) giving all my Barbies away to a younger neighbor. Within the year, I was intent on outdoing my peers in the maturity stakes, impressing my father by reading (and failing to understand) lots of white men like Kerouac and DeLillo, and trying very hard to be “not like the other girls” by obsessing over Radiohead and the Pixies.
I got in sneaky Barbie time while babysitting my younger cousins, but otherwise it was up to me to make real friends, and I did, eventually. I found a merry band of other nerds and neurodivergents, whose friendship was the only thing that got me through secondary school. But letting go of Barbie in many ways meant letting go of imaginative play and girlish interests, with adolescence offering little to fill the Barbie-shaped hole in my life.
The Barbie movie comes out this week, and in its trailer, it claims it is for everyone who hates Barbie. There are many reasons to hate Barbie. By the time I was playing with Barbies in the early ‘90s, creator Ruth Handler’s feminist message of empowering girls with Astronaut and Pilot Barbies had all but been lost in an expanding universe of consumer goods. Despite being a fan of Barbie in her own day, my mother had long decried the unrealistic body type and hegemonic femininity projected onto her very impressionable daughter. And beneath the sparkle of Pantone 219 C, Mattel had been dogged by allegations of child labor, the use of leaded paint in toys, and unethical advertising, which corresponded with a slump in Barbie sales in the 2010s.
Mattel has since responded by recovering some of Barbie’s radical roots, like greater racial and body type diversity, and releasing lines of gender-neutral and disabled dolls. In the Barbie movie itself, the company shows some self-awareness by plunging Barbie into an existential crisis in which she goes up against grey-suited Mattel executives determined to confine her sparkle to Barbieland. Still, to some haters, all this comes off as a blatant marketing strategy—and a few years ago, I might have agreed. However, in December 2021, at age 37, I was diagnosed as autistic. The diagnosis has given me context for understanding the sense of isolation that plagued me throughout childhood, the difficulties I had in making and sustaining friendships with other girls, and my deep attachment to Barbie as more than a toy.
with Barbie, I could safely test what I thought it meant to be a girl-woman without risk of social rejection.
Sara Ahmed writes of “girling” as the process by which those of us assigned the work of being girls learn to act according to expectations of cis-hetero femininity. She calls gender homework, particularly for those of us who feel less or not at all at home in our original assignments. For me, spending time with Barbie was not so much work as play; with her I could safely test what I thought it meant to be a girl-woman without risk of social rejection. And soon enough, my obsession with this model of hyper-femininity began to feel at odds with my whole personality.
I never needed Barbie to be a feminist role model. I was able to tell real women from the caricaturist Barbie physique, just as I knew that real ponies did not come in blue and pink. My deep disgust of my body had everything to do with the media’s objectification of women and family, classmates, and even strangers who felt free to point out all the ways my changing body was deficient. Besides, for a feminist role model, I had my hairy-legged, braless, women’s liberation mother, who both exasperated and delighted me. I needed Barbie to help me experiment with different modes of femininity, until I ultimately embraced queer androgyny as my preferred aesthetic.
Over the last 18 months I’ve been allowing myself to indulge in all the childish, girlish, pop-culture obsessions I denied myself while trying so hard to be both “normal” and “cool.” While I haven’t gone so far as to buy myself a Barbie, I do relish the idea of a Barbie movie. It’s a chance to reconcile myself with a relationship that was cut short and fulfill my 10-year-old fantasies of living in a Barbie world. Perhaps the rest of us can set aside our cynicism and allow ourselves a little Barbie joy as well.
Aisling Walsh is a queer and neurodivergent writer and researcher based in Ireland. She writes a regular newsletter, AutCasts, exploring neurodivergence through popular movies. You can find her on Twitter at @AxliWrites.