The tall, pale skinned woman opens the pink door of her convertible and extends an impossibly long leg out onto the pavement. She emerges from the vehicle, and you begin to wonder how she could possibly have fit inside as she towers over her surroundings. She walks quickly, and silently into her house that also seems slightly out of proportion to its occupant.
As she enters her home, she kicks off her tiny hot pink heels. Once we peer inside, we can watch as this person goes about her day, but something still seems slightly off. She makes dinner, though she herself never appears to eat, and there is no one else in the home. She lays out a bowl of water, and pet food on the kitchen floor, but we never see an animal around the home. When watching TV, she seems to sit stock still, her gaze fixed on a static screen.
It isn’t until late in the night that we catch a glimpse of something truly out of the ordinary. When the clock strikes midnight the impossibly tall, slender woman grabs a pair of binoculars from the living room cabinet and begins peering out of a living room window into the night sky. After a few short minutes, she strips off her brightly colored dress and runs into the backyard. The last we see of her is her nude form floating up into the star-studded night.
That is, until the next morning when this woman can be seen waking up in her bedroom, now inexplicably dressed in a flowery top and neon green pants. She wakes up and prepares for her busy day of work as a world-renowned supermodel.
When I was growing up the concepts of feminine beauty and sexuality were understood by those around me exclusively through the lens of the male gaze. Barbie being a perfect example of this, as she is arguably a personification of the male gaze. Whether viewed through the lens of science, second wave political feminism, or through religion, my family has only ever understood femininity as men understand it. And despite being trans, I was no exception until very recently.
The main perspective through which my family taught me about sexuality was the brutal reality of biology. My mother was both a biology and a chemistry major during her undergraduate degree and made sure both me and my sibling were aware of what our body parts looked like, their proper names and functions, and, at an appropriate age, how sex worked in a mechanical sense. There was rarely, if ever, any mention of pleasure or of queer sex.
This dry, scientific approach to human sexuality contributed heavily to my theory on Barbie. I was taught that, generally speaking, humans have genitalia, and at least partially functional mouths and anuses. The Barbie’s I played with had none of these, nor was the plastic on their lower section molded to resemble underwear, as some are now. Couple this lack of orifices with her impossibly long limbs, and rather oddly shaped breast forms and the one conclusion my mind could draw was that Barbie must be an alien who simply resembled humans in order to live more easily among them. This was how I played with Barbie’s until I lost interest in them entirely somewhere around 7 or 8 years of age.
Second wave feminism
The brand of feminism unique to the mid-20th century also deeply influenced both my mother, and her mother. Despite chafing at the demands of a deeply misogynistic capitalist system, both my mother, and grandmother fully internalized their positions as “undesirable” to the male gaze and sought empowerment within the system through the imitation of masculinity.
My grandmother went from being a hyper visible target of the male gaze as a rather attractive teenager, to consciously rejecting the male gaze during and after college. She sought to defeminize herself through smoking cigarettes and vocal training to deepen her voice. She bought suits with shoulder pads to broaden her slender frame and wore 2–3-inch (5-7.5cm) heels everyday despite being 5’-10” (178 cm) tall without them. There were many reasons for this but the main one was that my grandmother was determined to make a career for herself in public service as a social worker.
This meant fitting into the local government office work environment of the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Looking, sounding, and acting more like a man was only an advantage. Which is why my grandmother impressed upon my mother that it was better (and safer) to be deemed sexually undesirable by the male gaze. Along with this, feminine sexual desire for men was seen as problematic to the cause of feminine political equality. Being submissive to a man in any sense, even if that only meant one enjoyed a receptive role during sex, was seen as debasing oneself. Despite her best efforts, these ideas did make an impression on my mother, and continue to influence her thinking on gender and sexuality to this day.
This staunchly feminist attitude was deeply at odds with my family’s religious teachings. Both my mother and me were brought up in the Church of the Nazarene. The qualities deemed most desirable in a woman by the Church and its members were namely whiteness (or proximity to it), chastity, and submission. I was taught that beauty was to be found in one’s perceived virginity, and willingness to serve a man. Both of which naturally excluded me, a childhood sexual assault survivor who has never been interested in men sexually.
Though I did receive a lot of praise for my bright blonde hair, blue-green eyes and light skin. This told me everything I needed to know about what people actually took into account when they interacted with me, my exterior. I was forced to listen to sermons and “youth-oriented discussions” on the value of sexual purity, and how abstinence until marriage is the only righteous path. All while knowing that these same people who were seemingly so concerned about “my immortal soul” would look down on me if they knew what I had been through. Keep in mind I stopped going to church at the age of 10, so these are just the messages I absorbed as a young child.
Taking a step back
All of these perspectives were sorely lacking. They are 2 dimensional at best and serve only to flatten the powerful twin forces that are feminine beauty and feminine sexuality into something built only to serve someone else’s imagination. These common means of understanding the world around us (politics, religion, and science) seek to reduce the entirety of human experience: love, sexual tension, release, pleasure, pain, gratitude, longing, fulfillment, comfort, affection, intimacy, and identity into things that can be easily owned, manipulated, and eventually consumed. I deserved better as a kid, and we all deserve a deeper understanding and appreciation for the truly multifaceted nature of femininity.
Multiplicity and Femininity
When looking back, I find myself intrigued by this aspect of multiplicity inherent to my childhood understanding of femininity. Barbie was an alien who could successfully live and function among humans. Drag queens, a childhood fascination of mine, looked nothing like their drag personas when the makeup came off. Many people who wear it feel makeup to be something akin to a mask, a part of themself, but something that can be put on and removed at will or convenience. To my young mind, femininity was allowed to exist in so many iterations, and masculinity came in one form: loud, and dangerous.
I did not have options as a child. Lack of choice was, in fact, a defining aspect of my childhood. Everything in my life, from what and when I ate, to how I dressed, sat, and spoke was policed by someone. Everyone had a fucking opinion. The aspect of femininity that I fell in love with was simply the idea of being able to conceal and reveal aspects of yourself at will. There is real power in this act. It has saved my life. And continues to do so to this day, though I now recognize that this skill is not inherently gendered.
Wrapping it all up
Despite my enduring passion for the power that others find in feminine beauty and sexuality, it is not for me to claim personally. I admire it deeply, but I do not feel a personal connection to what, for others, can be a very real means to self-fulfillment. One need only witness the amount of folks who feel personally liberated by expressing their femininity and having it validated, to understand that a great many people find joy and identity in embodying aspects of the human condition which greater society recognizes as “feminine”.
Thankfully, my understanding of the world has grown beyond that of general society to include the fact that gender is personally understood, and there are as many genders as there are people in existence. It was only through interrogating my relationship to masculinity, femininity, and gender as a whole that I came to see this truth. So, while I can’t give her all the credit, I do have to thank you, Barbie, for kicking off one queer kid’s journey into thinking critically about this bizarre thing we call gender.
Complement this with the definitive guide to facing disillusionment with masculinity or with a poem on the inherent worth of trans womanhood.