Has there ever really been a gay doll?
Well, yes and no. In 1977, “Gay Bob,” marketed as the world’s first gay doll, was sold through mail-order ads in gay magazines. And I’m sure that Mattel still thinks about the “Earring Magic Ken” fiasco of 1993, and his “necklace.”
But there’s nothing inherently gay about dolls themselves – they’re toys, pieces of plastic after all. In the same vein, there’s nothing inherently gay about doll collecting as a hobby, as a passion, as an art form.
Dolls are cultural reflections of the times, for better or worse. But doll brands like Barbie that are symbols of hyper-heteronormative, old-school femininity are being reclaimed and reinterpreted by adult LGBTQ collectors in a new way. And don’t think the toy companies are unaware — they’re not, and they are absolutely involved.
More recently the main way collectors are expressing this kind of love and solidarity, and where community can be found, is through the internet and social media. This is a space where the toys’ brand narrative has usually been out of corporate hands. But companies like Mattel are in it now, noticing these LGBTQ fan communities, and vying for their digital eyes.
Coming out of the (doll) closet
Many adult collectors choose dolls because of the nostalgia associated with collecting toys from their childhood. Younger LGBTQ collectors aren’t connecting as much over the nostalgic dolls themselves, as much as they are using social media to connect with other gay fans.
Tumblr user @dolljunk, who used to collect Barbies as a young boy, got into it again as a young adult through online fandoms. “Internet groups were a great way of connecting to other collectors. I had never even heard of [doll-related social media], let alone other collectors and when I went to my local library, I found a multitude of forums and fan sites that detailed how people collected dolls such as customizing, photography, and numerous guides for doll releases. It really opened my eyes to another side of playing with and seeing dolls.”
LGBTQ collectors are also identifying with the messages of newer doll franchises, and the potential for what the dolls can represent. Monster High collectors in particular are mostly Millennials who never grew up playing with the dolls themselves, but with whom the brand’s identity has resonated.
Dott, a doll collector active on social media, introduced her collection, saying “I mostly collect Monster High, but there’s some Barbies, Ever After Highs, and Descendants strewn in there.” For reference, all of these brands were created after 2009. “Monster High’s my main focus because…well, I think I connect with the lore the most. Unlike a lot of doll collectors, I love the lore aspect as much as, if not more, than the actual dolls. And there’s something about the MH media that I just adored.”
In an from the University of Connecticut titled “Valuing queer identity in Monster High doll fandom,” author Sara Mariel Austin wrote that “Monster High’s recent ad campaign claims, ‘We are monsters. We are proud.’ Race, ethnicity, and disability are coded into the dolls as selling points. The allure of Monster High is, in part, that political identity and the celebration of difference…”
If the messages intrinsic to these brand identities are like this, it’s no wonder that LGBTQ doll collectors connect with these dolls on an emotional level. Social media doll communities like “Dollblr” and “Dollstagram” have also inspired other ways for a group that’s traditionally marginalized to express themselves.
A passion for fashion: doll artistry and expression
Doll collecting is, inherently, at least somewhat escapist. There’s something that feels revolutionary about being constantly bombarded with the idolized bodies and lives of cisgender heterosexuals on social media, and then going “screw that! I’m gonna take this toy, make it a representation of me, and imagine a new world with it.”
Utilizing dolls as an art form – through mediums like photography, clothes-making, customization/modification, and fanart – allow for LGBTQ collectors to envision a world free of toxic masculinity. Creating doll art in and for an online world allows a safe space for folks to literally “play” with their own femininity and subvert gender roles as they see fit.
“It’s something that’s a nice escape from real life? We aren’t worrying about gay stuff if we’re rerooting a doll head, cause we keep pricking our fingers on accident, and our wrists and palms are sore from using pliers. In all seriousness, I think it’s a form of self-expression,” Dott told Mashable about the physical art of doll modification and customization.
The way that @dolljunk connects to his collection emotionally through art is similar. “Dolls and toy collecting [are] a great creative outlet…and can encompass fashion design, hair styling and face painting/makeup while also offering a way of creating new items,” he said.
“It resulted in me becoming more secure in my identity and interests because Barbie, for better or for worse, is a symbol of hyper femininity that doesn’t allow any room for toxic masculinity in her world. Being able to get in touch with my feminine side and interests was a big contributor to accepting my sexuality as being an intrinsic aspect of myself that didn’t need to be changed,” @dolljunk said.
And for many LGBTQ folks, especially gay boys and trans girls, that’s incredibly important. Even Carlyle Nuera, who is now the lead designer for Barbie Signature at Mattel, sees the growth in these social media communities as being rooted in collective childhood experiences.
‘They kinda create this fantasy world, this beauty that they never really had access to as a kid.’
“I think for a lot of us, in different ways, for different reasons, we feel repressed growing up,” Nuera said. “Depending on our homes, our family situation, we might not feel safe expressing ourselves. I think a lot of people when they start to have expendable income, they kinda create this fantasy world, this beauty that they never really had access to as a kid. They can see it — and I think they can sort of create it with their own dolls, by customizing their own dolls, or with photography. And then also to share with other people, cause you can connect with other people [on social media].”
Dolls are humanoid, so it’s easy to project our wants, desires, and dreams onto them. And if we alter their resemblance enough, they can mirror us back in ways we hope society will someday.
Does life in the Dreamhouse have to be so straight?
Toy companies, though, are already creating their own miniature worlds with their own identities for the dolls through tie-in media. With various outlets and extensions of their brand, they impose their own meanings onto the products. Mattel and Hasbro, for example, have their own TV shows and movies. Barbie has the Netflix series Life in the Dreamhouse; Monster High and Ever After High had their own movies and webisodes, and Hasbro has the massively successful My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series.
They also have flashy social media accounts with good fashion photography and witty interactions. Barbie is now an Instagram , as well as a with her own popular YouTube series. Mattel once ran an entire in-universe Monster High through their Tumblr account.
The presence of toy companies on social media is intriguing though, given that the minimum age for Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook is 13. So who really is the audience for these branded doll accounts?
While these companies likely don’t want to risk alienating the parents who buy dolls as toys for their kids, it’s also seems fair to say they want to capture this LGBTQ adult interest in their products. There have been brand partnerships like with Crayola, meant to solely market towards kids. But when you have Mattel partnering with Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation for Monster High, it’s obvious that they spend at least some time thinking about their messaging that can be subtly aimed at the LGBTQ community.
Especially since in a lot of their media franchises, there’s a heavy focus on messages about being yourself, accepting others, and celebrating our differences — great lessons for kids of course, but all of which.
Milissa C. is a big fan of the Monster High and Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse series, alongside collecting the dolls themselves. She believes that the connection between the brands and the fans is deliberate. “[We] members of the LGBT+ community are oftentimes made to feel like we are not normal because of our feelings and our identities. Monster High encourages people to celebrate what makes them unique, ‘freaky flaws’ [as the main character Frankie Stein says] and all. LGBT+ doll collecting communities will certainly imagine more of their dolls to represent themselves. Every time I see a post from the official Barbie Instagram accounts where Barbie is obviously having a date night with a lady friend, I think — bi queen!”
Connecting to the storylines as much or more than to the dolls themselves is a celebration of LGBTQ identity, in Dott’s case. “Mostly because Monster High’s entire concept is centered around embracing who you are. Plus, it was my special interest when I realized I was a lesbian. Mattel never gave us any canon gay characters in that franchise, but I find it profoundly moving that lots of lesbians/bi girls see themselves in characters like [daughter of the Wolf Man] and [daughter of the Boogyman].”
Yet, she’s right — the representation so far hasn’t been that explicit. There’s a line between using broad metaphors to illustrate big concepts (mainly for kids), and allowing the diversity of the real world to exist and be seen on the small screen.
Despite knowing that he is far outside the target demographic, @dolljunk says that toy brand media “influences or recontextualizes the designs of the dolls I collect. A good piece of toy tie in media often encourages its audience to invest in the universe they have created, and I’ve seen it result from kids to adult collectors to go on to create their own fanart or fan characters. That being said, in the future I really do hope they are able to innovate and modernize for an ever changing audience in a world with changing attitudes and values.”
Dott says she always hopes for more explicit inclusivity. “Put some canon LGBT characters in your doll and toy franchises. Show kids that it’s okay to be gay or bi or trans! It hasn’t got to be something big; maybe a boy character has a schoolyard crush on another boy, you know? Just something small like that to get the ball rolling. Companies still have to do better.”
Not having canon LGBTQ representation is not unique to doll media, but because the companies have opened the door by putting these messages front and center, doll collectors engage with the media as a way of reclaiming identity, and then push the representation further than canon allows for. Toy companies arguably owe it to both children and adults, LGBTQ and not, to step up with better depictions of diversity because they’re already toeing the line.
Progress is being made, slowly but surely. There are coming out of prominent IRL figures and fictional characters who are LGBTQ. Last year on Instagram, Barbie wore a shirt that said Even in doll-related media, companies are beginning to test to waters — in 2016, Mattel’s movie series based on the doll line for Ever After High featured an between two princesses.
For many collectors, it’s not enough anymore to simply admire and collect these fashion figures. They want to see themselves in the dolls that they’ve been projecting onto for decades.
So while we wait for the brands’ next move, gay culture will keep claiming dolls because we know in our hearts that they’re ours as much as anyone’s. Barbie? More like Bar-bi.