The Barbie Movie and why it made me want to Die

30/07/2023 Vespers/Εσπερινού - DISCLAIMER ONE: if anyone who happens to be a member of my family stumbles upon this, I am asking you right now to please take my privacy into consideration and not read this. I know it's out and public on the internet, but I use this blog as a kind of confession booth, and say things that I don't always want my family to read. Especially this one as I talk in depth about one of my family relationships. Close the page, forget you ever saw it. Thank you.

DISCLAIMER TWO: the first two paragraphs are kind of absent-minded reflections that aren't really worth anything, so if they seem stupid to you, please do feel free to just skip them. Splitting hairs over whether the feminism of a piece of culture-industry mass-media is good or not has a tendency to roll eyes, and rightfully so. In this post it really isn't very serious. But still, you can just pass it by and still not reallly lose anything of the blog post.

Barbie was, start to finish, a glowing homage to cishet femininity. Hari Nef’s inclusion as a slightly lower-voiced Barbie really did not put a dent in this at all - she was integrated into this shiny bright pink world as if to say “Look, a transsexual freak can be a normal girl too!” Absolutely no shade to Hari Nef or any of the creators for any of this - after all not every film ever created has to account for every different type of femininity, and not actively including queer and trans expressions of the feminine is not necessarily a damning indictment of a film. Plus, Hari Nef being treated in the film as a Barbie like any other does convey that important belief of the Liberal Snowflake Credo: “We believe in the Womanly Spirit, the Feminine, the giver of valid / who proceeds from the Normal Woman and the Tranny.” (the addition of the “trannioque clause” was the ideological catalyst that led to the eventual schism between the pro-trans lawn sign libs and the TERFy liz warren bumper sticker havers)

So if “trans women are women” is as far as the film gets into the issue, nobody has the right to complain, since that’s already stepping into the realm of that which has in recent times become controversial. Less gloss-overable, however, was the way that the film treated Weird Barbie, really the most explicitly queer-coded character. They treated her dykey hair and more masculine mannerisms as the butt of a disgusting joke, and while part of the joke definitely was an ironic pisstake of the way the Barbies talked about her (obviously you’re not meant to be on the side of the person who says “We call her Weird Barbie behind her back and also to her face!”), the fact is, the overall spirit was one of ridicule of her extremely lesbian appearance, with the final message being “you’re a bit of an off-putting freak, but we’ll accept you in all your weird freakness!” Another weird thing for me was the way the daughter’s external presentation progressively changed from the decidedly more androgynous long black sleeves and pants to pink and girly dresses and tops, precisely corresponding to her redemption arc from bitter, mean, bitchy, and ungrateful, to loving, kind, smiley, and apologetic for what a bitch she’d been when her expression of femininity was more hors-norme. Feminazi trope much?

But I digress. At the end of the day this is a children’s movie and while there can be some reasonable concern for what messages this movie sends to its audience, it also Isn’t That Deep and can hardly be held to the same expectations as a piece of media or art that is created for an explicitly radical purpose. These are more afterthoughts that came to me after I got out of the theatre and walked home in the miserable downpour that materialised out of sunny skies whilst I occupied myself with more important matters of Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House. The main reason for my discomfort was without a shadow of a doubt the company I was in when I watched it: my mother. It’ll take a moment to explain this.

We’ve already established that Barbie upholds this very narrow type of cis hyperfemininity to be a kind of ideal. And for me that’s really not much of a problem. I quite like a lot of the external signifiers of this femininity, I find them slay, I oftentimes wish I had the confidence to participate in them like cis girls do. Not that I spend my days staring in the mirror and longing to be Just Like A Cis Girl - that’s some 2 months on HRT shit right there. But regardless, the type of femininity expressed in the Barbie movie is in many ways still upheld as the ideal version of femininity. And on top of that, since in this movie the women that have this type of femininity are the noble protagonists, you’re supposed to support and identify yourself with them. So I had this sort of double desire, first to identify myself with the femininity expressed by the women I was seeing on screen, and secondly to actually participate in that kind of femininity on some level in my real life.

So what’s stopping me? Well, I think I know, because I think watching this particular movie with my mother magnified my pre-existing issues with this sort of thing up to a huge projected size and allowed me to inspect their complex anatomy like blown up diagram of an insect. And I must add as a disclaimer at this point, in all truthfulness, I don’t fully know where my mother’s wrongdoing ends and my projection of my own internalised transphobia begins. I am certain she would find this an unfair characterisation, and I sincerely hope she never stumbles upon this blog page because I don’t want to hurt her feelings. But, at the same time, my continued projection of these internalised issues is absolutely in some way grounded in her difficulty accepting my queerness and her issues with me being a trans girl. On with the post.

Cis femininity, while held up as the ideal and true femininity, is also of course derided as shallow and stupid. I don’t want to be seen as shallow and stupid, but more than that, I don’t want to be seen as presenting a certain way because I want to experience those misogynistic attitudes, as they are well known to come in response of this particular species of feminine presentation - “your honour, she was asking for it, look what she was wearing! Stilettos and a pink cocktail dress, she KNEW she wanted people to think of her as a bimbo!” This connects in some way to the age-old transphobic trope of trans women as smart, coldly calculating, predatory males, and also back to one of the first things mother dearest said to me when I came out to her: “You know, a lot of women are also educated professionals, smart people. What I’m saying is, if you want to 'live as a woman', you have to think about what kind of woman you want to be.” The implication was clear: in her eyes, my external expression of my (ahem, innate) femininity was a desire to be a pretty flouncy airhead bimbo of a sex object. To her, I did not and could not understand womanhood - as long as I had a desire for femininity, my understanding of womanhood would be a shallow, fetishistic mimicry, a desire to assume the role of the ridiculed bimbo, with a warped understanding of the accompanying derision, oppression, and infantilisation as a validation of my gender, playing into stereotypes and accepting the worst of patriarchal oppression against women as something desirable.

But if to my mother a desire to be feminine belied a fundamental non-understanding of what it meant to be a woman, then a lack or inadequacy of such a desire was even worse. Of course, as trans women we are expected to walk an eternal lifelong tightrope. When you’re closeted, if you try to express some femininity, you have your masculinity, your boyness, confiscated - “you’re a faggot, a sissy boy. What kind of a man paints his nails? No man at all. If you wear those clothes, you’re not a man.” Once you elevate your efforts towards feminine presentation to the next level, suddenly your maleness, previously confiscated by those that would seek to police your presentation and uphold cisnormativity, is turned around and thrust back upon you, this time as punishment - “You’re a crossdressing transvestite, a man in a dress, you are a man and men should not wear such things. It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear, you will ALWAYS be a man”. And even if they’re trying to be nice, they STILL will force maleness upon you rather than acknowledge the realities of your gender differences - “It’s ok sweetie, lots of boys paint their nails! Wearing a dress doesn’t make you any less of a man.”

And then once you socially transition and start fully presenting as a girl, as we established before, if you present too feminine, you’re a shallow fetishiser who wants to be a bimbo - “this MAN clearly has no appreciation of womanhood beyond desire to be a sexist caricature!” But not feminine enough? It’s “How does HE expect people to believe that he has any understanding of womanhood? He doesn’t even participate in femininity.” Trans women are expected to display an exaggerated femininity to prove our worthiness of womanhood, and are simultaneously condemned as unwomanly for displaying any femininity at all. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This is what was going through my mind sitting there - I can’t get into this movie properly, I can’t self-insert or allow myself to even relate to any of the characters because she, one seat over, will think I’m fetishising vapid bimbodom. But if I don’t, she will continue in her mind to deny me my womanhood, my lack of emotional investment in the hyperfemininity blazing before me on the big screen serving as additional coal to fuel the little steam engine of denial running in her mind that occasionally prompts her to sit me down over coffee and ask “why can’t you just be a feminine boy?”

But as bad as all that was, let me tell you, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, came close to the absolute agony of sitting through the never-ending march of cutesy lovey mother-daughter relationship scenes, right next to the mother who still calls me by my deadname. I wanted to crawl inside myself and hide. If I am on my own or with people who truly see me as a woman with no reservations, when I think of my relationship with my mother as a mother-daughter relationship, and recontextualise my memories of my childhood in that light (which almost always makes them make so much more sense), I become so moved with emotion that I start to cry almost immediately. But actually being around her is a completely different story. I didn’t even dare to begin to consider to self insert into these very emotional scenes out of fear that she would somehow know that I was doing that. Neither of us dared even glance in the direction of the other. It was tense and uncomfortable and I really felt my inner James Holmes coming through.

I think we may be coming to a turning point. I have waited and waited for my parents to get past their preconceptions and see me for who I am. I have been patient, I have done my best to show them that I just want to feel comfortable with myself, simple as. They both call me by my deadname. Neither of them has ever used anything other than “he” to refer to me. My dad still often calls me a man. I don’t think either of them mean anything bad by it, but hurt done out of indifference stings the most strongly, and aches terribly. I’ve been out to them for one year and three months. I have been on HRT for one year and five months. In my day to day life in Montreal, I am never treated as anything other than a girl. I know that many people have it much worse than me, but I don’t think I can any longer permit myself to sit by passively and allow this to continue. At the very least, I have to try. The thought of having that conversation does make me want to run into traffic however.

But not all is lost for the Barbie Movie. I saw my beloved bestie Lavi yesterday for the first time in eight months, and we queened out all afternoon and late into the night. I love her and I miss her so much in Montreal. We always have so much fun together and it’s a travesty that I go to school a continent away. And much to my excitement, she was looking for someone to see the Barbie Movie with. So as soon as I post this, I’m gonna go put on my best flamingo cosplay, do my makeup, and head towards the Marais where we will eat falafel and go see the movie. A redemption arc is on the way for Barbie. Without any family members breathing over my shoulder I expect to get a lot more fun and enjoyment out of the experience. I probably won't even have to blog about it this time!! And I just might be able to sneak a portion of fries from the falafel place into the theatre, because this Barbie is a huge slut for a little snack.


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