A good way to make yourself feel like you’ve got any kind of control over your life is to play with dolls, because you can make them do whatever you want. Another good thing about owning Barbies if you’re a little queer girl is that you can look at their naked bodies and not feel like anyone will say anything weird to you for it, because if there’s anything we know about Barbies, it’s that they were manufactured for the purpose of taking their clothes off and putting new clothes on.
I make my dolls kiss, topless. I run their plastic hands across my own body. Their chests are rounded and perfectly shaped. Their waists are slim enough to fit the smallest imaginable skirt. Their feet are formed to slip inside Cinderella’s slipper. No one else will ever have feet so small and good as mine, says Barbie. I’m perfect.
I don’t have a dream house or a car. I don’t have any of the extras. “We’re poor,” says my mother. We can’t afford any of the stuff that Barbie can. Barbie is rich. Barbie has a better wardrobe, nicer toiletries, a swimsuit that’s not a hand-me-down from a second cousin. I do have some kitchen stuff. I have a small, off-brand pink plastic microwave gifted to me by an aunt. Everything Barbie owns is pink, even though I don’t like pink and we have to have a girly bedroom because I share with my sister and that’s what she’d prefer, even though she’s eight years younger than me. Pink bedspread, pink walls, pink lamp that glows and lights up all the stains I’ve gotten on the gingham. If Barbie’s stained, it’s from me. She’d never get into that kind of mess on her own.
“You dirty everything you touch,” says my mother, and it’s true. I am the kind of girl whose hair is never brushed. I’ll brush Barbie’s hair, though. I’ll try to keep her clean.
One day, I take a shoebox and I make Barbie a bedroom by setting it on its side and using the lid as a propped-up wall. I decorate it with markers. I turn Kleenex into bedsheets. Cotton ball pillow. Barbie lies down amid all that trash, and I think to myself, this looks pretty good. It’s exactly what I’d want for myself. Just a little room to breathe and be myself.
The Barbies I own are hard-won. I have to beg for them. Looking back, that feels right — how to get all the women I want who want nothing to do with me. I should get on my knees and grovel. It should cause me physical pain to acquire them. I need to beg —to do service to deserve them.
I ask for Barbies while we’re at the store, though it’s always a no. I ask for Barbies for my birthday. I ask for them for Christmas. I ask to borrow the ones from my friends, the ones in ball gowns and fairy outfits, princess gear, sparkling tiaras. Oh, these girls are pretty. These girls know to brush their hair before they leave the house, and their clothes all look clean and they don’t have to worry about if they will be embarrassed when their mom comes to pick them up two hours late from school in a car that keeps breaking down and doesn’t have any air conditioning and there’s a screaming baby in the backseat with gummy Cheerios all over its face.
Did you know: Barbie is a pediatrician, a veterinarian, a stay-at-home mom. She works at McDonald’s. She owns a dream house. She owns a fucking DREAM HOUSE. I will never own a dream house. The house I live in has five rooms and one of them is a bedroom I share with my sister and one of them is a bathroom I share with my entire family. The only way I can read in my house is to wait until no one’s in the bathroom and then go lock myself in and pretend I’m taking a bath so I can have one second of time alone so I can read, because no one in my family reads and no one wants to let me read — they think it’s a fun time to try to yell my name over and over again while I am trying to focus on any of the words.
Is this why I can’t listen when anyone calls me now? Is this why I can’t believe when anyone actually wants me?
Barbie would never have to put up with this. Not in the DreamHouse. I don’t own any Kens, and then I own two Kens because I am playing Barbies with friends all the time and they start asking why I don’t ever have any Kens so my Barbies can get married and date. I get those Kens and what I learn about Kens is they are ugly and I am not interested in taking their clothes off. I am interested in the fact that their plastic heads pop off, though, so sometimes I enact scenes where Ken dies in a horrible traffic accident (heads tumbled into corners, ketchup blood strewn) and Barbie is a sad, inconsolable widow who has to be comforted after the funeral service by her very good friend, the other Barbie in the jean jacket and pleather pants.
Barbie makes me feel good about myself when I’m alone. Barbie makes me feel bad about myself when we’re with other people. When I’m alone with Barbie, she tells me everything I need to hear — that there’s nothing wrong with me for wanting to look at her, for wanting to slide my hands over her body. That it’s okay it’s just the two of us, that we’ll always be together. When we’re with friends, Barbie slides into their hands just as easily as she fit into mine. She smiles up at them. She kisses Ken directly on the mouth. She and Ken jump into a pink plastic bed and my friends giggle and laugh and talk about Barbie getting pregnant. Barbie’s having Ken’s babies. I know one thing, I’ll never get Barbie pregnant. Barbie smiles her secret smile from her pretty painted mouth as Ken looms over her, a Frankenstein whose body won’t bend.
Later I will meet a girl who I’ll want like I want Barbie. Oh, cute girls, pretty girls, girls who’ll tell me that I’m just what they want when we’re all alone. But oh, those same girls do a number on me when we’re around other people.
I still own all of my Barbies. I own my Barbies, I own my mother’s Barbies, I own some of my sister’s Barbies. These Barbies still look good coming up out of that locked case, hair just a little mussed from their catnaps. They will always look good. They will always look just the right amount of pretty. I look at those Barbies with their perfectly painted makeup and their special hair and tortured tiny feet and think about all the ways my body will never do those things. Barbie never changes, sure, but neither do I.
In another girl’s bedroom in sixth grade, we dress Barbie in a silky teal taffeta gown. She is going on a date — neither of us understands what a date might actually look like, other than a few things we’ve seen on television. Barbie wears the dress and she wears Cinderella’s perfect shoes and she climbs into a pink convertible for her date with yet another Ken. They are going to a restaurant where Barbie has no appetite. She holds an empty wine glass in her hand and smiles at all of Ken’s jokes. After the meal, they climb back into the car and head back to Barbie’s place. They sit together on the bed. Barbie’s bed is pink and frilly and it’s got a canopy. Barbie takes off her clothes. Ken takes off his clothes. My friend says, “Now they’re going to kiss,” and she presses their faces together so hard that Barbie’s face caves into itself as if trying to escape the pressure.
“Is that what kissing is like?” I ask, because I have only ever kissed family members and that’s with a touch so light my lips might not even have touched them at all.
She decides to show me what it could look like. We put our hands in front of our mouths and press our faces together that way. “Move your lips,” she tells me, and we are kissing our own hands as we press those hands to each other, as our heads come together like Barbie and Ken’s. She closes her eyes, but I keep mine open the whole time. All I can hear is our breathing. I do not tell her about the secret handshake I had with another church friend when I was 6 years old, one where we would touch our tongues together as a special kind of greeting only for us. That girl was not allowed to have Barbies, and when she came over we would hold them and look at their hair and wonder when our own hair might get so thick and fancy.
Barbie can never masturbate. Her arms can’t reach the vee of her crotch; they cannot bend at the elbow to allow her to caress her own breasts. Barbie’s sexuality relies on anyone who’s willing to do that work for her. She is a passive partner. She lies still. She stands, she sits, she resists any movement that would bring her any level of true relaxation. Even when she’s lying down she’s tortured, stretched out and rigid. I’m not supposed to touch myself either, but I’m not bound by the same restrictions as my plastic girlfriend.
My sister has a Barbie that I’m endlessly fascinated by and I “borrow” her often. It’s the Barbie that comes with a bicycle, and her limbs move more than any other barbie I’ve encountered. This Barbie can put her hands in her hair. This Barbie can do the Electric Slide. This Barbie could lock her arms around my neck. She does, sometimes, when I am sitting alone in the room with the door locked.
Barbie is the exact kinda woman I wanna chase. Barbie is my secret high school girlfriend. Barbie is beautiful and kind of cold. Barbie is so talented and long-limbed and too good for me and knows it. Barbie is extremely withholding. I want Barbie to tell me she loves me, but even the Barbie with the speaker in her stomach will only play whatever prerecorded message she’s designed to love more than me.
Looking at the Barbies now, there is pain in the rictus of her smile. Maybe she’s me. She’s all the things I never allow myself to say. She’s the me who hands out a punctuated laugh and a big grin instead of telling people when things hurt, or joking about the fact that, much like Barbie, I can’t cry. I have emulated Barbie and wanted to be her, and now, grown and filled out, I am Barbie with women who want me to open up and enfold them. My arms don’t bend that way, my eyes say, still smiling. My tongue won’t speak those words to you.
Let me undo it. Let me buckle the knees that refuse to bend. Let me be a better Barbie. Let me kneel for you. Let me loosen and get dirty and curl up on the bed. Hold my plastic body until it heats up to the same temperature as the person trying to love it. Let me loosen my Barbie tongue. Let me say I love you, Kristen. ●
Kristen Arnett is the New York Times bestselling author of the debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, '19). She is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Fiction and is a columnist for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in North American Review, the Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, McSweeney's, PBS Newshour, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/the Guardian, Salon, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Felt in the Jaw, was published by Split Lip Press and was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award. You can find her on Twitter @Kristen_Arnett.