My Trans Daughter Looks a Lot Like Barbie… Except for That One Part

I remember it like yesterday — Gideon sitting on his knees, grinning from ear to ear, and meticulously (well, as meticulously as his four-year-old hands would allow) sifting through the boxes that his big cousin Harper had shunned to the side of her bedroom.

Harper’s “Barbie bins” were overflowing with Malibu Barbie, Fashionista Barbie, Ballet Barbie, Graduation Barbie, City Barbie, and a bunch of other Barbies whose names we could only guess. But Gideon’s favorites were clearly the “Naked Barbies.” He dressed them, undressed them, changed their outfits, put up their hair, made them twirl and dance, lifted their arms, looked at their boobs, and ultimately left them naked.

When we left our cousins’ home that afternoon, Gideon clutched his newfound treasures. Four Barbies. Three wearing some combination of pink and purple prom dresses, yoga outfits, and short shorts with high heels, and one wearing nothing at all. Once home, Gideon cleared out a corner in the room he shared with his twin brother Jacob and propped up the dolls for all to see.

“Those are so stupid,” Jacob would say from time to time. “Why do you like Barbies so much? Don’t you know they’re for girls?”

“Anyone can play with Barbies,” I interjected each time the conversation arose. “There’s no such thing as girl toys or boy toys. They’re just toys.”

“Well, I’m not playing with Barbies,” Jacob replied.

“And I am,” Gid offered.

“That’s great,” I said. “You can play with them, Gid, and you don’t have to, J-man. It’s all good!”

Fast forward a few years and our twins are now 14 years old. Jacob is more tolerant of Barbies. Gideon is now Gabriella; she socially transitioned when she was 8 years old.

Playing with dolls and wearing tutus didn’t make her trans. Being born into a body whose outsides didn’t match her insides did. Neither my husband nor I was surprised when she told me she was a “transister.”

“Do you mean transgender?” I asked her.

“Yes, when I was in your tummy, it was a mistake, I was supposed to come out a girl.”

We’d witnessed our daughter struggle with her gender identity since she was about two-and-a half-years-old, and we could only hope, if not believe, her life would be happier once she became her authentic self. Spoiler alert: It is.

When my daughter returned from sleepaway camp this summer, I was super excited to take her and her best friend to see the Barbie movie in the theater across the street. The girls wore matching pink sweaters, and even I — who always favored GI Joes over Barbies when I was a little kid (and wrote all over the Mattel Barbie Styling Head I received for my birthday in 1976) — caved and threw on a pinkish t-shirt. Barbie is a unifying force. Love her or hate her, she was, and maybe still is, the quintessential “it” girl. And I wanted to show solidarity with my daughter and her bestie, if not the whole Barbie universe.

As we watched the movie unfold on the big screen, I laughed, and the girls giggled, mostly at different parts of the movie. What resonated with me — a fifty-something mother and a highly vocal feminist — was largely different from those scenes that made my daughter and her bestie chuckle. The scene when Barbie is catcalled by several construction workers, for instance, and she responds by saying she has no vagina? I laughed so hard that I spilled my popcorn. My teenage movie companions laughed not at the scene, but at my reaction.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. My daughter looks a lot like Barbie. Long legs, long hair, a pretty face, perfect boobs, and no vagina. Of course, Barbie doesn’t have a vagina because she’s plastic. Gabby doesn’t have one because she was born with a penis. Fun (or not so fun) fact: it’s infinitely easier to be a girl without a vagina and live in Barbie Land than it is to be a girl without a vagina (and with a penis) in the real world. Even in New York City. Where my daughter has a supportive family, access to gender-affirming healthcare, and a loving circle of open-minded, validating friends.

“Mommy, why can’t I get the operation now?” Gabby asks me from time to time, mostly after growing frustrated by the bulge she sees (or perceives) when she puts on a pair of cute jeans or when she grabs a pair of shorts to accompany one of the many bikini tops she’s curated over the past few summers.

“18 feels like forever from now!!” she’ll say, sometimes sounding angry, other times just sad.

Gabby’s 18th birthday, still almost four years away, has taken on a somewhat mystical significance in our home. 18 is that “magical” age where the body that’s long betrayed my daughter will finally be transformed into the one she knows she is meant to have. See, despite what lawmakers on the far right would like voters to believe, transgender kids can’t just waltz into a doctor’s office and “get an operation.” It’s a process. One that for trans youth often begins with puberty blockers and is followed by hormone treatments. Both generally require doctor visits, referral letters from therapists, informed consent, the list goes on. Further, most states mandate patients wait until turning 18 before undergoing gender reassignment surgery, or gender affirmation surgery as it’s now known. And even then, the waiting lists and red tape that must be bypassed to receive said care can stretch for months, even years.

Technically, Barbie wouldn’t need to wait years for gender affirmation surgery if she was a New York resident. Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, maintains the doll is perpetually 19 years old, a full year beyond the aforementioned age requirement. Though to be clear, Barbie doesn’t dwell on her gender identity; no one in Barbie Land, suitors included, second-guess her lack of vagina, or question her femininity. I wish I could say the same for my daughter. Right-wing lawmakers nationwide not only challenge Gabby’s gender but also her right to exist. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union is currently tracking more than 500 anti-trans bills proposed last year alone. Gabby doesn’t track anti-trans sentiment as religiously as I do, though she’s keenly aware of the attacks and the hate they portend.

Thankfully, the Barbie movie is less about hate, more about empowerment, the notion that girls and women can be whoever they aspire to be. If you haven’t yet seen Barbie on the big screen and are still planning to, you should probably stop reading here. Otherwise, you already know that just before the closing credits, Barbie receives her vagina. She does so without pleading her case, battling lawmakers, or challenging healthcare providers to help pay for her to procure the genitalia most girls take for granted. Rather, once Barbie leaves Barbie Land for the “real world,” she seamlessly trades in her plastic body for an anatomically correct human one.

Of course, Barbie’s “real world” is still the “reel” one. And it’ll take more than two hours of campy humor, a Grammy-nominated soundtrack, and a big tub of popcorn for Gabby’s dreams to come true. My greatest hope as her mom? That she realizes being her authentic self beats being plastic any day of the week.

I’ve got a hunch even Barbie would agree.