Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
When I was 10, I regularly played with a handful of Barbie dolls and a small neon pink-and-turquoise plastic dollhouse. I loved them, but I had to take some creative license to make my pretend fantasy world align with my budding sense of self.
I chopped off the Barbies’ hair so they had spikey, little proto-dyke ‘dos, donned them in Ken’s clothes to butch them up and paired two Barbies together as a couple, replete with a Mattel child doll as their kin. Ken was left off in the distance, exposed to the elements sans attire and relegated to tasks like mowing the lawn or watching the garage for signs of unlawful entry.
I didn’t yet know I was queer, nor did I have the words to connect to why I was different, or why I liked masculine Barbie so much better than feminine Barbie, but I was nonetheless able to express my future self through play.
Despite my attempts to shoehorn intensely unrealistic dolls to mold the role I more wanted them to play, I eventually realized that dolls were designed for girly girls and not for me. I was too butch, too fat, too brunette, too queer for Barbie. As I grew, I also realized that girls were assigned other gender roles, some of which I would be forced to contend with – being talked over in meetings by men, being treated as a second-class citizen for being LGBTQ+, being made to feel like I didn’t deserve the nice things in life. I gave up buying or playing with dolls from that time on.
But Mattel’s recent release of its first transgender Barbie of famed actress and activist Laverne Cox, is giving me life.
The doll, designed by Mattel lead designer Carlyle Nuera, who is queer, describes the Cox doll as modeled on “a four-time Emmy-nominated actress, Emmy-winning producer and the first transgender woman of color to have a leading role on a scripted TV show, Laverne Cox uses her voice to amplify the message of moving beyond societal expectations to live more authentically.”
The Cox doll stands tall and proud and dons a “triple-threat original design,” featuring a “deep red tulle gown gracefully draped over a dazzling, silver metallic bodysuit.” Her hair is described as being “swept into glamorous Hollywood waves.”
The new Barbie is part of Mattel’s Barbie Signature Collection, a club which includes such gems as the David Bowie Barbie, 1967 Francie and Barbie Looks Doll, which is labeled as “tall, dark brown.”
The world may be a dumpster fire, but the Laverne Cox Barbie doll gives me hope. Some little kid, maybe not unlike me 25 years ago, may happen upon the doll in the toy store or online and feel seen. They may be able for the first time to feel connected to something outside of themselves – the beginning stirrings of a sense of community, of safety, of affirmation.
Tears streamed down my face as I ordered my own Laverne Cox Barbie online.
It wasn’t just that I hadn’t felt a connection to a doll in 25 years.
I also remember working with Cox when I ran communications for a tiny, now-defunct LGBTQ advocacy organization in New York and she came on the bus with us to protest at the Capitol in Albany. I remember when she spoke on a panel in a dingy, dark basement at the LGBT Center in New York City’s West Village with an audience of only a handful of people.
To see how far she’s come and how society has embraced a Black trans woman who is outspoken and political – and sanctioned by a toy company at that – is truly astounding. This milestone moment offers a small respite from the increasingly hostile environment in American public life for LGBTQ+ and particularly trans people.
We’re living through a time when LGBTQ+ and particularly trans rights are caught in the trap of the right-wing’s culture war and Rainbow Scare scapegoating. There have been more than 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in state legislatures in 2022, largely targeting trans kids and their access to health care and sports. In his concurrence to the majority in the case that brought down Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited two cases central to LGBTQ+ rights in this country, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges (which guarantee the rights to consensual sex and marriage equality), as ones the court “should reconsider” following the overturning of Roe.
It may feel insignificant to rally around an inanimate toy when so many real trans and queer people, not to mention so many others, are under attack, but I assure you, it’s not merely child’s play. Trans children are victims of a culture war that has forced them into the role of wedge issue to get ring-wingers elected. Lawmakers and parents are attacking school curriculum as with the so-dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida and the copycat bills around the country; they’re banning books that contain LGBTQ+ characters or content. There’s even pushback against a lesbian kiss in Disney Pixar’s new “Buzz Lightyear” movie. In this environment, moves like Mattel’s rollout of its first transgender Barbie help counter the vitriol.
The Barbie Tribute Collection Laverne Cox Doll sells for $40. But really, you can’t put a price tag on inclusive representation. If the Laverne Cox doll helps even one trans or queer child feel a little less alone, a little less scared, it will be worth it.
When we received the Laverne Cox Barbie, my five-year-old wanted to open the box and play – but I told him this was one doll I was keeping for myself. The neon Barbie house may be on fire, but the Laverne Cox doll, and with it, trans and queer people, will survive.