Mattel’s news that a gender-inclusive doll line is hitting the shelves is the sort of news that could have seismically shifted my own sense of belonging and worth as a child. The new product includes a kit where kids can create their own style doll, mixing and matching hair lengths and styles, and gendered clothing.
The news brought me back to a shopping trip with my mother: We were shopping for a dress for a cousin’s wedding and I would have preferred to be pretty much anywhere else. I would have chosen to take a math test or watch my great aunt dig into a pile of gefilte fish over dress shopping. An invisible force was pulling me toward the men’s clothing section. The women’s dress clothes felt so ridiculous with their bright colors and weird cuts, the sequins and the sparkles. I was more interested in the sharp wingtip suits, patterned ties and crisp shirts with stiff collars.
“That one looks pretty,” my mom said, as she ran her fingers through the chiffon trim that lined yet another dress on the rack.
“Eh,” I said, completely disengaged and pretending, for the sake of honoring my mother and the unseen pressure I felt from the generations of women that came before me.
I’ve had an aversion to typical feminine clothing from as young as I can remember.
I did, however, like dolls. I had a whole army of Barbie dolls and a house that I could fit them all into neatly and tuck away for the night. But I never felt like Barbie, with her long hair and feminine clothes, reflected the type of girl that I was. She always felt like a static reminder that I would never be the girl society expected me to be.
Our gendered existence begins before we’re even born. Pink or blue paint and blankets and onesies fill our future rooms when we’re still in the womb. Gendered toys — trucks and dolls — are shoved into our play areas before we’ve even professed an interest in either. Sure, many kids identify cleanly with the sex they were assigned at birth and gravitate toward these toys without much fanfare.
But many of us don’t.
No one held me down and tried to exercise the masculinity out of me. My parents didn’t throw me out of the house, or burn the boy’s clothes that lined my dresser drawers. In fact, my mom took out her credit card and bought me boy’s T-shirts and shorts, men’s jackets and shoes, even though I knew she didn’t necessarily understand or approve.
It wasn’t overt acts of discrimination or rejection that made me feel inadequate in my natural inclination toward masculinity; it was the subtle moments throughout the day in all facets of life that chipped away at my self-assurance, making me feel like I wasn’t normal, wasn’t worth quite as much as the girls who embraced femininity. It was the urging of my grandmother to wear my hair a certain way; the constant barrage of magazine and TV ads showing feminine girls consuming feminine things; my pile of Barbies with their plastic smiles and little skirts.
Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. I didn’t have a gender-neutral Barbie doll, but I also survived.
Some of us were beaten by our parents for not conforming to the gender we were assigned. Some were bullied in school. Others were rejected by our religious communities, ejected from our homes. Yet others were policed so severely they may never find the path to fully be themselves.
Transgender people, and trans women of color in particular, face the highest rates of violence because they don’t fit the binary sex or gender categories we’re told are fixed from the time of birth. We need look no further than the 18 trans people who were murdered this year alone because someone carried so much hate around preconceived notions of gender that they perpetrated acts of violence. The very real fear that stems from those headlines is enough to make young people long to conform. It’s enough to keep others in the closet. The threat of retaliation because we’re not feminine or masculine enough, female or male enough, is real.
Barbie may be a toy, but who we’re told we are determines what toys are considered acceptable, and none of it is child’s play. It’s a misguided and harmful plot guided by adults who crack the whip on children just trying to express themselves in ways that are perfectly natural and harmless.
Whether seeking to capitalize on the zeitgeist or for other less than altruistic reasons, Mattel’s evolution from gender reinforcer to gender inclusion is a hopeful sign. Perhaps times really are changing. Or rather, people are starting to open their eyes and their minds to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Barbie can wear pants and have short hair and still be just as cool as she ever was — maybe even cooler.
My inner 9-year-old is sold.