Transmissions: Barbie, through a trans eye

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
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Barbie. Illustration: Christine Smith
Barbie. Illustration: Christine Smith

In the early 1970s, Mattel partnered with United Airlines to enter Barbie into one of her many careers.

They packaged a replica of the bold colored, brightly-patterned flight attendant's outfits of the time for Barbie and a more demure gray pilot's uniform for Ken. Capping off the collection was a plastic-over-stiff cardboard airplane play set called the Barbie Friend Ship.

I was busy scheming for Christmas presents when I spotted the play set in the Sears "wish book" of holiday toys, trying to figure out the best way to put this on the list for Santa — and my parents — that year. I decided to sneak it — with a Barbie and the flight attendant outfit, of course — on the bottom third of the list, assuming it would not draw so much attention that far down.

Even then, I had a strong suspicion I should not have been asking for Barbies. None of the boys I knew had any, and as everyone assumed I was a boy, I knew the toy request was more than a long shot. Rather, I tended to be given the "Big Jim" dolls, which were the alternative that Mattel packaged up for boys, and who often used the very same play sets and objects as Barbie.

In fact, I did eventually end up with the Friend Ship in its repackaged-for-Big-Jim-variety, called the "Sky Commander." It wasn't quite what I'd hoped for.

Even then as a fairly young child, I knew what I wanted: her name was Barbie. Well, me and just about every other young girl at that time. While this wasn't my first memory that shows a distinct identification with other girls and women, it's close.

Let's not forget, however, that Barbie is a doll that was initially patterned after a German, adult doll named Bild Lilli that was sold for the male gaze versus the early tween girl market. Barbie rightfully has been critiqued over the years for focusing on traditional, white, cisheteronormative social mores - particularly when presented as subservient to her biggest accessory, the Ken doll.

Barbie herself has gone through a lot since her beginnings, replacing her flight attendant gear for a role in the captain's seat. She's been a member of the military, a rapper, a doctor, a member of Starfleet, and even a presidential candidate. Now, she is the subject of a movie directed by Greta Gerwig starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

I don't want to spend a lot of time rehashing and reviewing "Barbie." It's a box-office smash that has topped $1 billion in ticket sales. It's worth it, too.

It's a film that is self-aware of the doll's history, as well as the critiques of the same, and Gerwig deftly creates a movie about Barbie and Ken that doesn't entirely shy away from examining feminism and feminist ideas.

Gerwig said that her mom was not a Barbie fan. She spoke about this to the New York Times, where she discussed the controversies around the doll, how those touched her own life and led her to make a film where she could be "doing the thing and subverting the thing." It makes the movie somewhat unique in both celebrating the consumerist, plastic, and pink world that is Barbie, while being very clear on its critiques of that.

If nothing, the movie maybe could have gone further — but in doing so, it also may have lost some of the charm, and some of the draw.

You will see Barbies of color in the movie, and Barbies who are not waif thin or exceptionally busty. You will see Barbies in a number of their high-profile positions, including president, physicist, Supreme Court justice, and doctor.

Let me add that doctor Barbie is played by a trans woman, Hari Nef.

I feel it noteworthy that Nef did not play this character as "Trans Woman Barbie" and, in fact, there is nothing in the film that draws attention to her transness. You won't find a sly trans flag motif snuck in, or any other blink-or-you'll-miss-it trans references surrounding the character. She is just another Barbie, even if she is one of the Robbie Barbie character's closer friends as portrayed in the movie.

Yes, I'm happy with this. I don't feel the need to see Nef have to play a very distinctly transgender Barbie in the movie. Her just being part of the cast of dolls is plenty. In fact, I might even say it's better this way, as she is simply another one of the women who make up this cast — and in a year where being trans has served as a reason to attack beer companies, shoe sellers, and major retailers, it is refreshing to see a trans voice just, well, existing with her peers.

This, of course, hasn't stopped bigots from learning that there is a trans woman in the movie, nor has it stopped their attacks. It has, however, led to many humorous moments on social media as they continually try, and fail, to determine which Barbie was played by a trans woman in the first place.

That, too, may go a long way toward explaining why she didn't need to be specifically called out in the movie as being a trans woman, and even reinforces one of the main themes of the tale, "just be yourself and know that that's enough."

So it is, Barbie. So it is.

Gwen Smith never did get that flight attendant Barbie, and she's OK with that. You'll find her at

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