Barbie and Ken . . . tiny figurines that pack such a cultural punch. These eleven-inch plastic dolls, generally a light shade of pink with hands, feet, arms, legs, heads, and torsos all in the rough shapes of a genuine human body, have an endless array of accessories. They drive convertibles and live in large, well-furnished homes. Their faces are frozen in perpetual smiles, and they seem carefree.
Until very recently Barbie had always been portrayed as a tall, slender, feminine, Caucasian debutante in cocktail dresses, stilettos, and perfect, in-season couture bags, or perhaps in crisp pink miniskirts, or even in form-fitting swimsuits that accentuated her narrow hips and ample breasts. She sported weightless blonde hair, eyes the blue of the Pacific, and nails that sparkled in fi re-engine red. Her blush and lipstick were flawless from sunrise to sunset, and she hosted parties for the elite. She was every little girl’s dream.
Barbie’s eternal partner, Ken, was always unmistakably masculine, a Caucasian, preppy college student in polo shirts and loafers. He was an expert with a tennis racket and a confident, yet sensitive, boyfriend who never forgot to bring flowers. The debutante’s ideal mate.
GI Joe, an “action figure,” was similarly ideal, representing hyper-masculinity as a musclebound, uniformed, no-nonsense soldier in military fatigues and combat boots. His gun and “kung fu grip” were extremes of authoritative power, and as a toy targeted to adolescent and preadolescent boys, his overall demeanor was replete with male virility.
These toys represent ideals of gender and of lifestyle: extremes of femininity and masculinity as defined by Western, twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural norms, expressing middle-class Caucasian American fantasies of what women and men should be. Originally encoded within Barbie was the notion of a job-free or homemaker existence for women, while Ken still portrayed the stable, usually white-collar-destined college graduate and GI Joe, the lifelong military man. Taken together, Barbie and Ken represent a relationship of Caucasian, heterosexual monogamy, standard forms of dress, and a life of means, with style, friendship, and happiness. All three model polarized images of gender and an explicit gender binary — that is, the idea that there are only two genders, male and female, each distinct from the other — as well as assumptions about career, class, conformity, attractiveness, race, ability/disability, and sexuality. These images are so ubiquitous in Western societies that we have internalized them, but their influence on our understandings of gender and sexual orientation cannot be underestimated.
To address some of these issues, Mattel expanded the Barbie line in early 2016 to be more inclusive of diversity, and today, Barbies can be purchased in a variety of body types, skin colorings, and ethnicities. In addition, career-oriented Barbies have been available for some time. But the classic Barbie and Ken, along with their socially conforming identities, remain in the consciousness of so many.
Still, many youths “queered” both toys, and in private play, away from parental oversight, the figurines provided safe preadolescent titillation in ways that were definitely not Mattel-approved. Business Ken/GI Joe was a popular combination: children often invented scenes in which the two attractive gentlemen crept into shadowy, hidden spaces to exchange forbidden pleasure; meanwhile, countless Barbies in frilly pink bedrooms engaged in femme-femme lesbian trysts whose passion might only be captured in Sapphic poetry. Their exploratory play remained secret until outed by Erica Rand in Barbie’s Queer Accessories.
Many see Barbie and Ken as images of idealized genders that transgender people might aspire to. Well-known transgender people visible on television and in the media, such as Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, and Chaz Bono, at least on the surface appear to emulate classic expressions of gender, wearing designer clothes and jet-setting from mansion to elite hotel to television show or award appearance in limos. These individuals are often portrayed in mainstream media as though they were to be role models, giving the impression that everyone in the trans community should follow their examples.
Western culture also praises and rewards transgender people who match cultural ideals for how feminine or masculine they appear. It’s not uncommon for a trans person to hear attempted compliments such as “I would never have known” or “You look so good [as a man/woman].” Some people call this “passing”: the ability to move through the world as one’s post-transition gender with one’s transness going unnoticed. The ability to be seen as “natural” (i.e., assigned your post-transition gender at birth) carries a privilege not available to all, and people who pass are less likely to generate hostility in public. But many trans people are unsure how to interpret these “compliments.” Is passing somehow better? Is someone who doesn’t pass of less value?
That said, it is also true that many people in trans communities feel that something in these gender ideals is authentic for them. They may dress as male or female in ways that are clear and unmistakable, and feel very natural doing so.
But are these stereotyped genders what every trans person wants? Not exactly. While these ideals fit some, others in transgender and gender-nonconforming communities find these stereotypes to be artificial or offensive. Many critiques of Barbie and Ken have described how the dolls feature proportions that are unattainable in actual human bodies. Some have suggested that the exaggerated waist and breasts of Barbies before the recent introduction of body-diverse dolls are unhealthy and unreasonable for any woman to meet and that Barbie’s appearance, styling, and often helpless, vapid demeanor seem tailored toward male desire. Ken and GI Joe are similarly unnaturally perfect, with physiques requiring countless hours in a gym. Joe is inalterably authoritative and stern, while Ken is masculine yet sympathetic, never angry nor inattentive. None of the three seems fully “real.”
Large numbers of trans people do not feel these expressions of gender are authentic to their transitions. While extremes are not right or wrong, many within trans communities view gender as a spectrum from female to male, a rainbow from Barbie to GI Joe, with countless hues between and themselves somewhere in the middle.
Additionally, transgender and gender-nonconforming people rarely have bodies that match the artificial proportions of these dolls; many are not Caucasian; and Barbie and Ken have always had access to financial privilege otherwise available to relatively few.
The way trans people see their identities is complicated and is influenced by historical circumstances. For most of the twentieth century, trans people were expected to adhere closely to social norms of gender and to identify as heterosexual in their post-transition gender in order to be eligible for services such as hormone therapy and surgeries. For some, these stories were authentic, but others, desperate for care, simply repeated what they knew doctors wanted to hear. Early versions of the Standards of Care, published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH, previously known as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association), required binary presentations, and consensus among early providers like Harry Benjamin was that the only way for transgender people to survive in society was for them to blend in as seamlessly as possible. This limited transition to just a few, and at Johns Hopkins University, the most well-known gender service in the country, two thousand people applied for services and just twenty-four were allowed to surgically transition prior to the program’s closing in 1979.
Only over time did the trans community, and the LGBTQ+ community more broadly, confront these restrictive programs and create opportunities for members to live in other ways. Progress has been made in medical and mental health communities as well. Version six of the WPATH Standards of Care, published in 2001, acknowledged an openness to identities outside the gender binary. Version seven, published in 2014, very directly accepts a multiplicity of genders and encourages aiding people whose identities fall outside binary social norms, though some providers even now enforce earlier, outdated and strict interpretations.
Today, anything is possible. “Trans” comes in countless varieties, and associated with each different form of transness are terms used to describe who individuals understand themselves to be. The language can be extremely personal and can carry a great deal of meaning about identity. People usually have specific reasons they prefer one term over another. Sometimes terms have similar or overlapping meanings, and definitions depend on who you ask. It is polite to refer to trans people by their self-identified gender (who they feel themselves to be) and by their post-transition gender (the gender they are after their transition), unless they specifically request otherwise. The best bet is to ask what they prefer.
But here are a few generalities:
Some people simply see themselves as male or female and use the terms “man” or “woman” to refer to the gender they understand themselves to be or to have become. They often completely reject the gender they were assigned at birth and may live stealth. These people tend to dress in ways that match the norms we usually see in society and in the media.
“Transgender” and “trans” are often used as umbrella terms to describe a wide range of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and they don’t necessarily indicate anything about how individuals might express themselves.
Some people use terms such as “transmasculine” or “trans man” (someone who has become or understands himself as a man) and “transfeminine” or “trans woman” (someone who has become or understands herself as a woman); each of these attempts to incorporate one’s transness into a gender label. Others describe themselves as men or women “of trans experience,” making clear they are male or female, while also acknowledging their trans past. Again, unless someone asks for a different label, it is respectful to refer to people according to their post-transition gender.
Increasingly, many people have different understandings of what it means to be male or female, and may feel themselves to be outside gender binaries altogether. The terms used by these people can be more complex and might be confusing to the uninitiated.
The phrases “gender nonconforming” and “transgender and gender nonconforming” (often abbreviated as TGNC) are umbrella terms for those not identifying in binary male/female ways. This is an attempt to be inclusive of people who transition but may not look or think of themselves as one gender or the other. They often dress in ways that incorporate a variety of genders or indicate no gender at all.
Some people find the term “nonconforming” to be negative, implying that there are standards some people live up to and others don’t. Instead, some use “gender expansive” to capture the feeling of expanding the realms of gender in groundbreaking ways.
“Genderqueer” is a term that can have two different but related meanings. Some use it to explain that their gender is more complex than simply male or female, and that it lies somewhere on a spectrum between these. For others, “genderqueer” has political significance. People who see it this way may feel that they are “queering” gender; that is, they express themselves in ways that play with gender, problematize it, and they actively confront social norms of gender so as to force outsiders to consider the gender stereotypes active within culture. For example, genderqueer trans men may wear cosmetics and genderqueer trans women may wear ties. By being provocative and making their gender an unavoidable topic, they hope to open up the possibilities of gender.
“Genderfluid” is also an increasingly common term and can reflect a person’s feeling that their gender shifts from day to day along a continuum. They may feel internally or express themselves more masculinely one day, more femininely the next, and androgynously at other points.
Similarly, “demigender” (half-gender) is used to denote people who feel they have a partial connection to a certain gender (i.e., demiboy or demigirl), while “bigender” (two-gender) refers to someone who incorporates both. “Two Spirit” is a Native American term also referring to a person whose gender is a combination of both male and female. Some feel that this term should be used only by people of Native American descent, as it carries cultural connotations and could be considered appropriation if used by others.
“Agender” (non-gender) expresses the idea that while someone’s physical body might align more with male or female, the person’s actual identity is without gender altogether.
And some joyously call themselves “gender unicorns”—rare and fantastical creatures who might seemingly defy the laws of nature and cannot exist, yet do.
Each term means something different to each person and reflects the fact that people in transgender communities have a wide range of ways of understanding themselves.
In the end, no gender identity or presentation is any more legitimate than any other. Society is expanding how it thinks of gender, and our culture is becoming more inclusive of all the gender Barbie and Ken are just as valid as the most extreme, genderqueer, outside-the-box gender expression. Some gender identities may make it easier to exist within society, but none is inherently better.
In the end, the only gender that is right for someone is the one that person chooses.