Opinion: Embracing my inner Barbie Girl: How I learned to stop worrying and love a doll


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Mar 10, 2024

Opinion: Embracing my inner Barbie Girl: How I learned to stop worrying and love a doll

Barbie teaches people they can be both 'girly' and strong, feminine and smart. It’s not that every woman has to be feminine, but she can choose to be, and it doesn’t make her any less capable or

Barbie teaches people they can be both 'girly' and strong, feminine and smart. It’s not that every woman has to be feminine, but she can choose to be, and it doesn’t make her any less capable or worthy of respect.Mattel, Inc./Mattel, Inc.

Gabrielle Drolet is a journalist and cartoonist based in Montreal.

When I was in elementary school, there was a speech my mom gave before any gathering involving gifts. As we got ready for Christmas parties or birthdays with extended family, she crouched in front of me and held my hands in hers.

“Smile and say thank you no matter what you get,” she instructed. “Okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed, my voice a high whine.

She narrowed her eyes. “Even if it’s a doll. Promise?”


My mom had a good reason for this speech. Like most small children, I was a terrible liar and completely unable to hide my emotions, especially when it came to disappointment. I also had a strong aversion to anything I deemed too girly: Polly Pockets, baby dolls, and – worst of all – Barbie. Someone who didn’t know me well would inevitably get me a gift like this, assuming that it was what a young girl might like. Without exception, I fought a grimace whenever I saw pink, plastic shoes or glossy, brushable hair.

My ungratefulness was rooted in the fact that, simply put, I wasn’t interested in the things I was “supposed” to like. In kindergarten, I entered a dinosaur phase that turned into a bird phase. Later, I became obsessed with whatever hand-me-downs I got from my older brother: Pokémon games, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, Lego, action figures. When the voice at the McDonald’s drive-through asked for the gender of the Happy Meal toy I was to receive – boy or girl – I invariably shouted boy from the back seat, to my mom’s dismay.

To be clear, my issue was never one with gender. I never struggled with my identity, always firmly viewing myself as a girl. Rather, I just found stereotypically feminine toys less interesting than those built for people like my brother. I wanted things that felt dynamic and complicated in a way that I never believed Barbies to be.

As I got older, my dislike of Barbie became more of a cultural norm. Like many, I spent my high-school years exploring my teen angst through a barely nuanced form of feminism I could shape my identity around. In the mid-2010s, when this angst was at its peak, girl boss feminism was also spreading. Central to this was the belief that girls could do anything our male counterparts were capable of. Phrases such as She.E.O. became popular. A narrow form of body positivity found its way into advertising. And a sort of holier-than-thou sentiment formed against some of the same stereotypically girly things I disliked as a kid, especially when it came to Barbie.

Think pieces were constantly being written about the terrible ideals Barbie instilled in young girls. Diagrams displayed how unnatural her body proportions were, condemning her tiny waist and long neck. People sneered at her permanently pointed feet, which were built to fit high heels and nothing else. Barbie, it was decided, was telling girls they could only be one type of woman – skinny, hyperfeminine and built to please the boys (or Kens) in their lives. Around this time, Barbie’s sales were slipping, the doll fighting to stay relevant in a market dominated by Disney princesses and electronic toys.

I applied the same attitude that was applied to Barbie basically everywhere. I dismissed musicians like Taylor Swift as too girly and simplistic no matter how much I secretly enjoyed her songs. I joined in with those who claimed she had nothing to say – that she only sang about boys. I realize now that my feminism often bordered on misogyny; as I turned my nose up at the hyperfeminine, I also dismissed actual women and their interests as silly and inane.

My relationship with femininity was further complicated by my realization that I was queer. My limited exposure to other queer people made me believe that being a queer woman meant further rejecting the few hyperfeminine things I loved. As I got my first girlfriend and found myself in more LGBTQ spaces, I also cut my hair short and stopped wearing the glittery makeup I usually spread over my eyelids. I grew conflicted about all the dresses and crop tops in my closet, swapping them for collared shirts and pants I always felt unsure about.

It took a long time for me to feel secure in my identity. Eventually, as I reached my early 20s, I accepted that I was someone who loved having long hair and wearing a full face of makeup; who loved Taylor Swift; who loved collared shirts and suits as well as dresses and flower prints; who was still queer and complicated. It would take even longer to realize I may also have been wrong about Barbie.

In Montreal’s downtown core, among the giant Cineplex theatre and huge department stores and tourist traps with “I Heart Poutine” shirts, there’s a place called the Barbie Expo. Tucked into a weird mall connected to a Metro station, the Barbie Expo is the largest permanent collection of Barbie dolls in the world. When you Google it, the business is listed as a “Haute Couture Fashion House.” When you visit, it’s a place so surreal it makes you wonder if you’ve died.

The Barbie Expo is partly underground, with no windows or connections to the outside world once you enter. It’s a place of extremes: the floor is made of exposed concrete with a glossy sheen; the walls are pure white; the ceiling is pure black. Crystal chandeliers hang overhead. A fountain splashes in the middle of the room, filling the space with the echoing sound of lapping water and the light smell of chlorine. Lining the walls are more than 1000 Barbies in glass cases, backlit with LED lights. There’s a life-sized Barbie box you can pose in, pretending to be your own Barbie. Most importantly – and perhaps most strangely – the Barbie Expo is completely free and always unattended by any sort of staff or volunteer. (Though it accepts donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.)

The first time I visited the Barbie Expo (which is closed for renovations at the time I write this) was a year and a half ago, not long after moving to Montreal. It was raining and I was looking for a shortcut to the Metro station. As I descended the stairs to the Expo, I was equal parts delighted and confused. I was 24, and hadn’t thought about Barbie in years. Suddenly, I was confronted by countless versions of her dating back to the 60s. There she was in a branded Campbell’s Soup sweater, in a Juicy Couture skirt, in a NASCAR leather jacket. She posed with turkey dinners, travelled the world and wore designer fashion. She even took on the shapes and faces of famous people and characters: Halle Berry’s Catwoman, The X-Files’ Scully, multiple iterations of Barbra Streisand.

I spent an embarrassing amount of time at the Expo, admiring the dolls I missed out on as a kid. It is, of course, still true that the brand is deeply lacking in diversity and proper representation both in terms of race and size. Still, I felt enamoured by the amount of variation in front of me in terms of details and purpose: so many Barbies, all with different careers and wardrobes and hairstyles and histories.

Since her inception, Barbie has apparently had around 200 careers. She’s been everything from an Avon saleswoman to an astronaut. She was a presidential candidate as early as 1992, and a paleontologist (my childhood dream job) as early as 1996. In the past few years, she’s also had more STEM jobs: conservationist, microbiologist and renewable energy engineer, to name a few.

I’ve gone back to the Expo countless times, both on my own and with friends who are forced to listen as I recite facts and give them the unauthorized tour. As I’ve developed an obsession with Montreal’s weirdest place, I’ve also come to understand just how limited my old anti-Barbie views really were.

In her permanent pink lipstick and big mascaraed eyes, Barbie teaches people they can be both “girly” and strong, feminine and smart. It’s not that every woman has to be feminine, but she can choose to be, and it doesn’t make her any less capable or worthy of respect. It’s a lesson I’m still learning myself, leaning into hyperfemininity without worrying if others take me less seriously.

As the Barbie movie quickly approaches, I’m thrilled to see others start to embrace (or re-embrace) the doll in the same way I have. The movie’s marketing has leaned into the same parts of Barbie I’ve come to love: the fact that she can be anything, with or without Ken. My friends and I have spent weeks talking about the outfits we’ll wear to the theatre – hot pink dresses and needless accessories. I’m embracing the fact that, though it’s an interest I came to later in life, this Barbie loves Barbie.