In 1960, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, the chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences, invited Jerrie Cobb, an accomplished pilot who held the world record for nonstop long-distance flight at the time, to participate in what would become known as the Woman in Space Program. The project was privately funded; as part of the program, Cobb and about 19 other women had undergone the exact same physical tests as the male candidates for the United States’ astronaut program. Thirteen women, who eventually came to be known as the Mercury 13, passed the exams. None of them would become the first American woman to go into space; that distinction belongs to Sally Ride, who was a part of NASA’s 1978 class of recruits and who eventually, on June 18, 1983, flew into space and broke America’s cosmic glass ceiling.
But Barbie had them all beat. In 1965, Mattel, the toy company co-founded by Barbie creator Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot, released the Miss Astronaut Barbie, the original of which is on display at the Smithsonian. She wore a silver space suit with brown zippered boots and matching gloves. She sported a fully beat face with red lipstick and blue eyeshadow. Her sole non-wearable accessory was an American flag. By the time Ride took her trip into space, an entire generation of girls had been imagining the same circumstance in the cosmos of their own making, with only the plastic of Barbie’s body and the synapses of their own imaginative brains.
“What Ruth did was put a doll in girls’ hands and the outfits to go with them that said, ‘You can have any career you want whether or not your current society is telling you that,’” Tanya Lee Stone, the author of The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us and a professor at Champlain College, told Polygon. “She was saying that before our culture was saying that.”
By presenting young girls with options not yet available to them in the real world, the Barbie doll became a symbol of flouting gendered expectations and limits, a tenet shared by the art of drag. In this sense, and in many others, Barbie is surely a drag queen. If drag subverts notions of gender by allowing people to dress up in hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine or even just unexpected ways, then Barbie’s goal in dressing as an astronaut was similar. In 1965, when Barbie donned her silver suit and white helmet, she sent a message that going into space had no gender and encouraged young girls to rebel against the current system, which asked them to disavow any silly notions of a girl one day becoming a member of a spacebound crew or, God forbid, pilot a shuttle herself.
Barbie has had over 200 careers in her toy tenure. She was a rapper in 1992, years before a female rapper won a Grammy award. That same year, Mattel released a presidential candidate Barbie, a doll that preempted Hillary Clinton’s own run by 24 years. Barbie’s impressive resume plays center stage in the marketing for the upcoming movie adaptation. Emma Mackey’s character poster reads, “This Barbie has a Nobel Prize in physics”; Alexandra Shipp’s Barbie is a celebrated author. Included among the posters are lawyer, president, doctor, and more. Very quickly, the posters became an internet sensation that spawned viral videos, many of which included drag-related spins. A video from TikToker Mikey Angelo mashing up the poster format with a litany of quips and storylines from RuPaul’s Drag Race garnered over 1.3 million views.
Drag was not on Ruth Handler’s mind when she invented Barbie in the late 1950s, but the idea of expanding possibilities, a hallmark of drag, was. At the time, only two types of dolls existed for play: There were baby dolls (alluded to in the first Barbie teaser trailer), which only allowed young girls to cosplay as mothers; and for budding fashionistas, there were paper dolls, though the dolls themselves and their accompanying clothes were flimsy and prone to ripping. Handler wanted to combine the experience of dressing up a doll with the 3D reality of the baby dolls, and she wanted to give her daughter more options.
“Girls are fully formed humans and don’t want just two types of play,” Stone said. “The whole impetus for Barbie in Ruth’s mind was about the clothes, it was about the play experience. Barbie was a teeny-tiny mannequin.”
Underlining Barbie’s status as a mannequin more than a full-fledged personality was her design at the time. For some time after she debuted, the iconic doll’s head popped off to help girls slip new outfits on and off with ease. Though Barbie’s two original occupations — fashion model and bride — seem limiting in comparison to today’s bevy of options, they still represent a liberating choice compared to what came before. At the core of the difference is imagination; while baby dolls relegated girls to motherhood, Barbie allowed young girls to create scenarios that had nothing to do with child rearing.
Having the ability to test possibilities in play is an essential part of childhood. “Imagination is so important for us as human beings,” Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant and historian who goes by The Toy Guy, told Polygon. “Barbie play has always been about trying on new identities and looking at, How do I discover myself by trying on all these different things? And when [you’re] doing this with an inert lump of polyvinyl chloride, it’s safe.”
Barbie operates on an ethos of “If you can dream it, you can be it,” in a way that is not dissimilar from drag. “When Barbie [went on] sale, nobody had ever seen a woman with breasts who had no husband, who lived alone and had a job,” said Trixie Mattel, whose drag is influenced by Barbie (if you can’t tell by her name), in a video for InStyle. “Groundbreaking.” Often, when a drag artist paints their face and dons an outfit, they get to dress up as something they are not. But for the length of a four-minute song, they can be anything: a space alien, a blushing bride, or whatever their imagination and painting ability can allow. Just as Barbie expanded the limits of what was possible for those who played with her, drag artists stretch the limits of possibility for those in the audience who get to witness their transformation.
But while Barbie may have been intended for children’s play, there’s no denying that the doll has a long and storied history within drag culture. A fashion Barbie released in 2012 was co-designed by drag enthusiast and designer Phillipe Blond, and in 2017, artist Mark Jonathan went viral for transforming Barbie’s blank canvas into RuPaul’s Drag Race queens.
More than that, Barbie has directly inspired some of the most famous drag queens in America — with Trixie Mattel as one of the most prominent examples. In an essay for Vogue, Mattel, who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 7 before winning Drag Race All Stars season 3, spoke about the influence that Barbie had on her drag, including not only in what she has worn and how she has painted, but in her business acumen. Mattel has built something of a drag empire that includes a retro-inspired motel, the Trixie Motel, as well as a Discovery Plus TV series of the same name about its renovation and opening. “When you’re a kid and you’re playing with Barbie, you’re basically pretending and rehearsing for your adult life,” Mattel said. “When you’re a little gay boy like I was, I think I was subconsciously materializing the career that I have now with those toys. It’s really inspiring to think about.”
Barbie has also influenced countless other queens. Robyn Banks, a 34-year-old New York-based drag queen who has been performing for 15 years, has memories of coiffing Barbie’s hair as a kid to match her sister’s braids. Banks’ sister, it turns out, was more into G.I. Joes and Banks was more into Barbie; the two could swap dolls when they brought all the toys together to play house. Banks still collects dolls from Mattel, especially ones that are modeled off female WWE wrestlers. She’s realized that over time, as Barbie has been updated with more detailed hair and better accessories, the doll has only become draggier.
“She has eyeshadow that’s heavier now. The only thing that’s missing is dramatic lashes,” Banks told Polygon. “I don’t think it’ll be a long time before Ken is a drag queen.”
Boston-based drag queen Missy Steak remembers playing with Barbie dolls at her babysitter’s house as a young child and sees a parallel between the type of play Barbie encourages and the work she does now as a performer.
“Barbie is kind of a kids’ own drag queen, in the way we dress ourselves up, like, ‘Oh, I’m doing a nurse number or a doctor number,” she told Polygon. “It’s make-believe, but it’s the power that can come from make-believe.” She added, “Barbie gets every job in the world. There’s nothing she can’t do! Drag is putting on the clothes that make the woman and suddenly you’re the woman.”
Handler may have intended to expand young girls’ worlds with the introduction of Barbie, but the reality has gone far beyond her intent. When considered alongside the art of drag, Barbie’s motto — “We girls can do anything!” — feels apropos of the art of drag as well. “There’s a lot of power and politics in drag,” Byrne said. “Drag is no different than Barbie play.” That message is always on display in shows like Drag Race, which constantly underscores the art form’s ability to empower those who practice it. And, as cultural critic Manuel Betancourt points out in The Atlantic, other depictions have played with this trope as well. In the musical La Cage aux Folles, the drag queen main character Albin, who performs as Zaza, sings, “To make depression disappear / I screw some rhinestones on my ear / And put my brooches and tiara / And a little more mascara on.”
Erica Rand, a professor of visual arts at Bates College, asserted something similar in her book Barbie’s Queer Accessories, in that “Mattel-generated meaning” and “consumer-generated interpretation” vary wildly when it comes to the 11-inch-tall icon. “One consumer might dress Barbie in Ken’s clothes to protest repressive gender stereotyping,” she wrote. “Still others seem to have expressed resistance through games that seem to follow Mattel’s directions, using Barbie’s glamorous careers, for instance, to imagine themselves out of difficult circumstances.”
As with drag, what matters with Barbie is not the expectations that are put upon us, whether that be how a person acts, what a person wears, or what their eventual job will be. When a person of any age or gender plays with Barbie, they are given a blank canvas and are able to fill in the story with their own imagination. Given the ongoing right-wing anti-drag push, which is mostly obsessed with keeping children away from the art of drag, it’s clear exactly how much the right understands the power of imagination. RuPaul’s maxim that “drag doesn’t hide who you are, it reveals who you are” sounds almost trite or rote when she says it enough times, but there’s some truth to it.
It may not be that a drag persona is who someone truly is, but the choices that a queen makes when painting, or the choices a child makes while playing, reveal their inner desires. Allowing children the freedom to make choices that reflect their own wants and needs not only makes them happier, but also exposes that gender roles are flimsier than old paper dolls.