Margot Robbie’s Barbie Is Undeniably Queer
Content warning: The following story contains spoilers for “Barbie.”
I am a preteen girl, growing up in Brooklyn in the 2000s. My dad, for reasons I do not understand in retrospect, has a home delivery subscription to the New York Post. I am flipping through the paper when I see a small news article that catches my eye. A middle schooler in New York was suspended for wearing a T-shirt that said “Barbie is a lesbian.” What?!
I don’t know exactly when I read about this, since the Post covered both when Natalie Hodges’s mom filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education and when she ultimately settled the case, winning $35,000 and a new Education Department dress code policy that made students’ free speech rights clear. Natalie Hodges (who I’ve tried very hard to locate this summer, and if you by chance are reading this, please email) doesn’t pop up in any more media coverage. I’ve never met anyone who remembered this story when I mentioned it to them.
But I remembered it. “Barbie is a lesbian.”
Barbie isn’t a lesbian, or at least Mattel’s official Barbie isn’t. In a May interview with Vogue, “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig noted that Ken was created by the company after Barbie launched, because people wrote letters demanding she get a boyfriend. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis,” Gerwig said. That quote stuck with me for weeks after I read that interview, and it came to mind often when watching “Barbie,” which was finally released July 21.
When I watch “Barbie,” I see a character trying to release herself from the scripted roles of her society, who wants to find out who she really is on her own.
In the film, Margot Robbie’s Barbie (referred to in the movie as Stereotypical Barbie) doesn’t want to be with Ryan Gosling’s Ken. It doesn’t matter that they’re perfect together, that they seem like a dual set. When he asks to spend the night, she tells him it’s girls’ night every night, and when he tries to lean in for a kiss, she definitely doesn’t want one. Later in the movie, when all the other Barbies are brainwashed by the Kens to serve them in a truly twisted version of the patriarchy, Stereotypical Barbie is the only one of the “normal” Barbies the brainwashing working on. She wonders if it’s because she was tainted by visiting the real world. But to me watching it, it seems Robbie’s Barbie is a lesbian.
I grew up a Barbie girl. I had dozens. I recently went through some old family photos and found at least three Barbie-themed birthday cakes. Every Christmas growing up, my mom got me the year’s Christmas Barbie with the matching ornament, and every holiday season I still set the ornaments collection out on a shelf.
I remember having literally one Ken doll. My brother – who hated Barbie – ripped his head off because Ken, a boy, shouldn’t be forced to play with Barbie. So my Barbies were never forced into relationships with Ken. I didn’t make them fall in love with each other either – at least not that I can remember – but they lived in a Barbie-centered universe. They were more likely to go on an adventure with a unicorn Beanie Baby than they were to marry Ken. Barbie’s world is a girl’s world, and it was my world. So if Barbie could be a lesbian, what did that mean about me?
I finally realized I was bisexual in my mid-twenties (though it took much longer to be fully “out”). When I look back on the years it took me to get to that point, I remember all the little moments that I’d stored in my memory that other people – straight people – just didn’t. I remembered every single celebrity I’d ever heard was bi. I couldn’t listen to a Melissa Etheridge song without thinking about how she was singing about a girl. And I remembered the “Barbie is a lesbian” shirt.
In the days since its release, I’ve seen people argue that “Barbie” is not queer “enough.” Some of the Barbies and Kens are played by LGBTQ+ actors, including Hari Nef, who reflected on what playing Barbie means to her as a trans woman. Kate McKinnon’s “Weird” Barbie, Michael Cera’s Allan, and the many odd, offcast Barbies (including Earring Magic Ken and Sugar Daddy Ken) all seem to be, if not canonically queer, implicitly queer. They don’t really belong in Barbieland and its heteronormativity. They’re sidelined.
But the central journey of Robbie’s Barbie seems queer to me, too, and I don’t think it’s subtle. This Barbie doesn’t want to kiss Ken. She only cares about girls. She has more chemistry with America Ferrera‘s Gloria than any Ken doll. She literally transitions from a doll into a human. This Barbie is not straight.
Throughout the movie, Stereotypical Barbie, when confronted with change, says she wants to stay exactly the same. She can’t be having thoughts of death or flat feet, because that’s just not who she is. Those moments reminded me of 1999’s “But I’m a Cheerleader,” in which Natasha Lyonne’s Megan says the iconic title line – she can’t be a lesbian, she’s a cheerleader. She tells everyone that she’s not a homosexual, she’s “normal,” though everyone else can see the truth. Stereotypical Barbie doesn’t want to accept that she’s growing and changing because it’s scary, and I saw my own queer journey – my own fears over how coming out would shake my life – through her eyes.
In the real world – the world where human beings buy Barbies and Kens and do whatever they want with them – Barbies and Kens are often gay. Ken has always been a gay icon, his “masculine” outfits and perfectly sculpted abs often falling on the side of camp. And many queer women made their Barbies scissor and grind without really understanding what that meant. Both dolls have done things Mattel could never have imagined, opening a door to play and imagination. The company didn’t mean to make two plastic queer icons, but they did.
Near the end of the movie, when most of the plot has been resolved, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) asks what Barbie’s happy ending is. Will Ferrell‘s Mattel CEO points out that she gets Ken. That’s the ending that’s scripted for her, the ending Mattel has always had in store for her. And that’s the ending that’s been scripted for lots of us – heterosexual marriage, a big wedding dress, a handsome, if bland, groom. But Barbie doesn’t want it. And the movie doesn’t make her take it. She gets to choose something else.
Is Barbie a lesbian? Technically, Robbie’s Barbie never says those words. But I am a queer woman, so when I hold Barbie in my hand, of course she isn’t straight. When I watch “Barbie,” I see a character trying to release herself from the scripted roles of her society, who wants to find out who she really is on her own. There’s nothing queerer than that.