As a little gay boy, I played with dolls. I told everybody that when I grew up, I wanted to be a rock star, but it was my dolls that did all the work. My Barbies rocked. I redirected the camera’s gaze from myself on to their bodies, stock still in metallics and teased hair. Throngs of imagined, adoring fans rhapsodic in their shadow, their shade. Shade is when I don’t have to tell you you’re ugly, because you already know you’re ugly: “This is Didi’s third best benefit. Barbie’s only had one.”
As a little gay boy, permission to play with Barbies was liberatory. Once, I spent an afternoon playing Barbies with the daughter of my mother’s co-worker. This is how the evening ended:
Here is a feminist defense of Barbies: The Barbie stokes imagination. Little girls use Barbies to tell their own stories. Like Barbie, a girl could become an astronaut. The president. A rock star.
They say that by playing with dolls, a girl learns her gender, her future. The doll facilitates her process of becoming. When a little gay boy plays with dolls, what is it he’s trying to become?
Here is a feminist critique of Barbies: The Barbie represents a controlling, unachievable patriarchal ideal, damaging to the self-worth and identity development of young girls. Her flesh is plastic, posable, in biologically impossible specifications, a plaything for men, object for the male gaze.
In Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes, queer impresario Boris Lermontov sublimates his feminized desire for men into controlling the body of his dancer, Vicky Page. He strokes the shaft of a phallic sculpture: a woman’s toe on point, explaining why full dedication to her career should trump heterosexual love. He drives her, pushes her past the brink of exhaustion until she dances off a parapet, to her death.
Once, my best friend and I tied my Barbies to the ceiling fan. We flipped the switch and watched the blades fling them off, into the wall, where they cracked hard and hit the floor, legs splayed.
It’s a common narrative: The faggot Svengali that manipulates his diva as proxy for his own fantasies. It has been suggested that perhaps this is the root of gay boys’ love for singular, public women: our projection of our own thirst for gender deviance onto their bodies, our identification with them, how the diva is at once all-powerful yet radically vulnerable, owned by her managers, insecurities, or the fickle approval of the crowd.
For the little gay boy, does the doll represent something to become? Or only something to play with?
Now I am a drag queen. We see drag queens as divas, but also as dolls. For many queens, the body of the Barbie is aspirational, achieved through waist-cinchers, couch cushions, chicken cutlets. In nearly every city, you’ll find a drag show called the Dollhouse. If you knock on the dollhouse door, who will you find at home? What game are they playing?
Here is a feminist defense of drag: Masculinity and femininity are cultural constructs, ultimately owned by no one, situated by rituals, discourse, and norms as biological in origin. The binary installs a logic—self/other, normal/deviant—that perpetuates oppression. The drag queen’s dramatized, exaggerated performance of gendered expression denaturalizes gender, calls attention to our unconscious, everyday gendered performances.
With drag, I wear my gender deviance on my body. I externalize, weaponize the anxiety I feel as a queer navigating heteronormative, patriarchal structures. My fierceness communicates what the poet Joyelle McSweeney has called drag’s explicit threat: “a weaponized aestheticism, an over-emphasis, an overtness that seizes attention and disrupts convention.”
Drag is about radical fierceness, yes, but it is also about vulnerability. Drag is pain: Duct taped genitals, tight bobby pins, heels. It doesn’t take long to realize just how true it really is that traditional fashion is designed to keep women dependent, compliant. Just waddle to the corner for a cab in a tight, knee-length dress. Just rifle through your purse to find your ID. Experience the overtures and catcalls of so-called “chasers” or strangers’ stares on the bus or hoots and hollers from passing SUVs, wondering how long, wondering if it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes for you. I expose myself to potential violence, and in so doing, take control over my reason for feeling threatened. I transform the shame and abjection of queerness into theater, ritual. In face, I face down the prospect of my tormentors, and survive.
Here is a feminist critique of drag: Drag reinforces a cartoonish depiction of femininity damaging to women, including transwomen. For cismale drag queens, the privilege to don and shed our personas at will makes drag queens a mockery of the daily danger encountered by those who cannot, likely would not, become invisible, become normal, become men.
Drag is my art, not my life. However often I may advocate for the blurring of that boundary, however much I may feel art as identity rather than hobby, my abject and threatening body can be removed when I feel like it, when I’m done for the night. If I transform myself into a doll, do I “dollicize” others against their will? Is my liberation inscribed upon another’s oppression?
I don’t have the answers. What I do know: Barbie was never my favorite doll.
These are the Misfits, the bad girl band from the ’80s cartoon show Jem. Manufactured by Mattel’s competitor Hasbro, to different specifications, alongside Barbie, the Misfit was sized like Ken. Enacting a fierce, glam futurity, with weaponized cheekbones, bomb-blast hairdos, laser-vision eyes—words Joyelle McSweeney once used to describe me that might just as easily describe the Misfits. They were painted like whores of Babylon, like legendary children of the night, their unnatural shoulders stretching Barbie’s threads to the breaking point. Untamable, unladylike, the Misfits stomped and thrashed through their manager’s office yelling, “Trash it!” They kicked garbage cans, overturned desks. They claimed their space and spoke truth to power, with lyrics like: It takes a lot to survive in this world. So shut out, so strut out, cuz you should enjoy. In my own mind’s eye, I am the sky. If you see her smile, better run because/ In a little while, she’ll reveal her claws. We’re pulling it apart, turning it around, and we ain’t gonna stop till the whole thing runs aground.
We are the Misfits, our songs are bitter, we are the Misfits, our songs are better, we are the Misfits, and we’re gonna motherfucking get it, girl.