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Saturday, January 21, 2006

The plastic activist

The Bay Area Reporter

Transgender activism is hard. One is often fighting a lonely, uphill battle against deeply ingrained societal norms, and oftentimes even our allies are shaky in their support.

That's why I was glad to hear about a new ally standing up for transgender people, a woman who built a $1.9 billion dollar-a-year empire. A most remarkable woman who has served in all branches of the armed forces, yet still has had the time for a successful career as a flight attendant, veterinarian, and ballerina.

Even after 50 years, she still has a killer body, though it's clear that there's a lot of plastic going on. Actually, that's all there is: injection molded plastic.

I'm speaking of Barbie Millicent Roberts. That is, Barbie, a 10-inch doll made by the Mattel toy company.

That she is such a fan of gender transgression might come as a surprise. All these years, I thought Barbie simply reinforced traditional stereotypes of women, and pushed a world that's all about dedication to your boyfriend and your dream home – which apparently should be painted in Pepto-Bismol pink.

When I was young, Barbie was still more something to hang miniature fashions off of, or pilot around the bedroom floor in a scaled down Corvette stingray. It was big news when she started to come out with attire and accessories that reflected the liberated, working woman.

Today, you can get Barbie in a plethora of professional outfits, not to mention ethnicities and abilities that go a little farther in showing a realistic portrayal of women in modern society. Granted, scaled up to life size, she's still 7-feet 2-inches – but at least she's a little closer to reality.

Into all this steps the Concerned Women of America, and the director of its Culture and Family Institute, Robert Knight. I'll avoid the usual comment about a man being the spokesperson for a women's organization, except to say that it probably just shows them to be a very old-fashioned group, having the man speak for the "little ladies."

CWA's main beef has been about a question on a poll present on the Barbie Web site. The problem the group has? This poll gave three options on gender: "Boy," "Girl," and "I Don't Know."

You can guess where it went from there. Shouts of how Mattel, through Barbie, was promoting the "homosexual activist agenda." Of course, days later, the poll response clanged to "I Don't Want To Say" – but Concerned Women of America is still not happy.

It's view, of course, is that this single, otherwise innocuous question promotes "gender confusion," and will lead young girls down the path of same-sex lovin.' It's a slippery slope argument that if a kid isn't sure of their sex, then it is that much easier to "trap" them into homosexuality.

CWA also contends that Barbie is materialistic. I can't argue with the group on that. Unfortunately, CWA places this view in opposition to Barbie "serving the Lord, getting married, having kids" and all that good stuff that Barbie used to do. All of those seem like difficult tasks for a doll to accomplish, however.

I have to admit: I didn't grow up with Barbie dolls, even though they often appeared on my holiday wish-list. The closest I got was a series of inferior "Wizard of Oz" dolls – yes, this probably should have told someone something about me – and the larger-than-Barbie Bionic Woman doll. Indeed, I didn't have my first Barbie until I was in my 30s, and it sits on a display stand collecting dust.

The dolls I had, however, were simply things I played with. They were toys with which I could pretend and imagine, playthings that could occupy my time in an enjoyable way. The Bionic Woman doll did not influence me to try bending steel bars, nor did the Glenda the Good Witch doll make me want to pilot around in a large pink soap bubble.

If I was still the kid I was then, and was faced with that poll, I don't know what answer I might have given. I doubt it would have been any more life changing that selecting my age within the same poll.

Of course, as I am a transgender woman – and had plenty of inkling of such from an early age – maybe I would have taken that third option. Yet if I had, this only proves something that already existed within me. It doesn't leave any room for saying that the poll contributed to my gender identity or expression. Heck, if I was surfing a Barbie Web site at that age, when the rest of the world considered me a boy, that would say far more about my gender than that one poll answer ever would.

My situation is, I suspect, one of few. For most kids, the issue of their gender isn't that big an issue. It is, at best, something taken for granted and, more than this, something that isn't that big a deal. Certainly not as big as the CWA wants us to believe.

The same is true of the doll itself. If anything, the doll may perpetuate issues with appearance and body image in women, but it isn't turning people away from their morality or values. To blame a piece of injection molded plastic for turning people away from church or family is the very definition of a scapegoat.

Perhaps this is the thing the Concerned Women of America doesn't understand. Sometimes, a doll is just a doll, and sometimes a kid is just a kid. Fretting over their gender when all they are doing is playing with their favorite plaything is just so much wasted energy.

Gwen Smith always lusted after the "Barbie Friend Ship" when she was a kid. She's online at


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