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This Barbie is Autistic
This is a SPOILER FREE post that barely mentions the Barbie movie. At the end of the post I added a top ten list specifically about the movie, which does have spoilers and will be marked with a spoiler alert.
It took me a little longer than others to get to the theatre to see the Barbie movie because we all got COVID right before the movie released. Thankfully a wonderful, Barbie-loving friend was willing to wait and see it with me,
Barbie played an interesting and unexpected part in my Autism diagnosis.
When the doctor evaluating me got to the portion of our three-hour long in-person interview regarding the toys I played with as a child, she was very interested in learning more about how I played with my Barbie’s.
As a young undiagnosed AuDHD (Autistic/ADHD) girl, I absolutely loved Barbie.
In fact, I played with my Barbie’s well into middle school, and sometimes - secretly- even during high school.
I don’t remember how old I was when I got my first Barbie, but suffice it to say I don’t remember my life without Barbie in it. I had an eclectic collection of Barbie’s (and even a few Ken’s!) along with her various accessories like her dream house, corvette, bus, pool, and yes, even her horse!
But my absolute favorite Barbie accoutrement was her clothes!
When I couldn’t find a Barbie outfit that fit my vision, I would alter what I had with my sewing kit or I would use the fabric swatches my grandmother had given me to create my own Barbie clothing.
I would spend hours and hours alone in my room making hand-sewn, bespoke Barbie clothes for years of my life.
When friends came over to play Barbies with me, I mimicked the way they played.
I quickly picked up on how other kids gave their Barbie’s roles to play and various scenarios to act out and was able to do the same alongside them. But what I also noticed was the ways so many of my friends liked to interact with Barbie’s were the same ways they socialized and interacted in the real world.
I didn’t fully understand or relate to social interactions in the real world, and therefore I didn’t fully understand or relate to the pretend play social interactions while playing Barbie’s either.
But I did my best.
It’s not that I never had my Barbie’s interact with each other when I played alone, there were certainly times when I would use my Barbie’s to act out social situations I had experienced or even act out social situations as I wished they could be for my own comfort.
But the majority of the time, playing with Barbie wasn’t social for me at all.
The comfort I found in Barbie was how she was able to be the me I wished I could be in the world, but wasn’t able to be without being seen as different, too much, or weird.
My Barbie’s got to wear what I wished I could wear and they got to lead the quiet, simple life I wanted to live a well.
I would dress my Barbie’s in outfits and then I would line them all up and look at them and find great comfort in that alone without any need to “play” with them in the ways so many of my friends did. I used to have lots of pictures of Barbie’s all lined up in the outfits I had created to them and I would put them in albums to look at whenever I wanted to remember what I had created. (Unfortunately, all those pictures are gone. Grown Up Katie thought it was time to grow up and get rid of them. What a bore!)
The comfort I got from this ritual was a huge source of emotional regulation in a childhood filled with anxiety.
At the age of 5 I won my first beauty pageant, and was entered into beauty pageants every year after that until late middle school when I absolutely refused to do any more. I found these pageants to be a huge source of anxiety for me, but as a child I didn’t fully understand why. As an adult I can understand that it was a long list of reasons that included sensory issues with the clothing I was given to wear, social anxiety in being expected to perform on stage in front of an audience, being in competition with my friends, and worst of all - I hated feeling like my worth, or ability to win or lose, hung on the opinions others had regarding my beauty or outward appearance.
This pressure to have a certain body shape, hairstyle or color, or to wear the “right” clothes followed me for many years of my life.
I felt like a real-life Barbie being dressed and positioned by others.
Barbie was my proxy and I was theirs.
My Sophomore year of high school I was on the homecoming court. I even wore a shiny pink dress that looked almost exactly like the dress my life-size Barbie came with when I was a kid. Countless people told me I “look just like a Barbie doll”. Well, that was on purpose. I was giving the people what they wanted.
My senior year of high school I was Prom Queen.
“I’ve had a few prom queens come through here to be evaluated for autism over the 20-some years I’ve been doing this,” the evaluator said to me that day. “So far I haven’t found it is as common for Autistic girls and women to be the popular, beauty queen types, but that could also be due to masking. There could be a lot more autistic prom kings and queens out there who have exhausted themselves to the bone masking to fit in, but just haven’t wondered or been confronted by the possibility they could be autistic. But, you are one of those people. You are an autistic prom queen.”
“Autism Barbie!” I joked.
It wasn’t Barbie who sent me the message throughout my life I had to fit certain beauty standards or ways of presenting myself to the world in order to fit in, be approved, be desired, or to be enough.
Barbie didn’t require anything of me and that is why I enjoyed playing with her so much. Barbie was my proxy instead of the other way around.
In all the ways the world was trying to tell me who I was or should be, Barbie was there for me to create the world as I wished it to be.
What the Barbie movie reminded me of about myself is that I don’t need Barbie as my proxy in order to live the life I want to live and I don’t have to play the game of life the way everyone else is in order to be extraordinary, beautiful, or worthy.
When the evaluator told me that the way I played with my Barbie’s was similar to many kiddos who are autistic, I was amazed. I didn’t realize the way I played was different from my friends until we started talking about it.
Getting diagnosed as autistic has been one of the best things to ever happen to me in my entire life.
That little girl who found a friend in Barbie when the rest of the world was so overwhelming and confusing can now thank Barbie for helping her be diagnosed, understood, and supported in the ways she needed as a child and is now getting as an adult.
Barbie helped me love myself as a child. She helped me have an outlet for my creativity. She helped me find calm and regulation when the rest of the world felt so overwhelming.
Some of my adoration for Barbie may be generational. Barbie fulfilled this need in me because she is what I was offered. Girls and women much younger than me grew up in a different world than I did. Perhaps they were offered other toys to express themselves and didn’t want or need Barbie like I did.
I wasn’t offered Lego, K’nex, or train sets. I was given a world of pink and sparkle to choose from for my creative outlets and I took what was given to me and I made it my own as much as I could.
I want to be clear that I don’t blame my parents for any of this; the pageants, not being offered Legos.
My parents were doing their best to offer my brother and myself what they thought all little boys and girls wanted in rural WV in the 80s and 90s. I was in pageants because that was really popular in my hometown and still is to this day. My mom and dad did their best just like T and I are doing our best.
But the fact still remains that in the early 80s and 90s, toys, careers, and the world at large was still very much organized around gender norms, biases, and stereotypes. I know now that I would have absolutely LOVED to have been given Lego and electronics sets as a kid and would have asked or even begged for them had I thought it was even an option for me to desire such things.
Patriarchy runs deep even in little rebels like me.
I’ve spent my whole life bumping up against the boundaries and edges and “no trespassing” areas of life wanting to see what is on the other side and being denied access. It is only over the last few decades I have realized all I had to do was just keep walking instead of letting others limit me.
But the great new is, it’s never too late to live the childhood you wish you had and the adulthood you want to have.
For the last several years I have been on a journey to reconnect with that Little Undiagnosed AuDHD Katie who was so full of creativity, passion, and a deep desire to be able to live fully as herself in safety and acceptance but didn’t know how to. I have been reaching back to her and bringing her gently and slowly into the present with me, comforting her all along the way.
Showing her the safety I have found- that I have created - in myself for both of us and all the other versions of myself I have been throughout my life.
Little Katie and I don’t need a proxy in Barbie anymore, but that doesn’t mean Barbie is no longer important.
I have been healing through creating more play and fun in my life as an adult.
I have been going back to the things in childhood that gave me joy and reexperiencing them in adulthood without the pain and trauma that has piled up over the years.
The Barbie movie has inspired me to go back to my first love in Barbie and see where it leads me as an adult.
Healing Little Katie and Adult Katie is another reason I am homeschooling my children.
In one way I want to do all I can to give my sweet babies a childhood where they can be fully themselves without needing to hide for the comfort and expectations of others or even for their own safety.
And in another way, through homeschooling my kiddos I am giving myself the gift of reliving my childhood on my own terms. I am going to learn alongside my children in the ways that work best for me and not in the ways I was told I had to.
It is my hope that my children will be a part of creating a world where there isn’t patriarchy and white supremacy. I want my children to know from an early age that they are “Kenough” and that who they are isn’t tied to who anyone else is.
In a world that continues to be hostile towards any breaking or bending of gender norms, I hope to create a safe space for my children to explore the world around them fully without pointless parameters around what toys they should play with, clothes they should wear, or how they should present themselves to the world based on the body parts they were born with.
And as T and I crack open the world for our kiddos, we, in turn, are cracking it ever more open for ourselves as well. There is healing and enjoyment to be had and we intend to have it!
To this day, when I see a Barbie, I feel comfort in my core. She will forever be an icon of endless possibilities, freedom, and creativity to me. When I look at Barbie, I don’t see some unattainable beauty standard.
I see myself and all the possibilities of who I could and can become.
Top Ten Barbie Movie Favorites:
Hari Nef!!! I loved her when I first encountered her in Transparent and have followed her ever since. I love that Barbieland includes a transgender Barbie - who is a doctor no less- because any accurate representation of women and certainly any utopia I want to be a part of has to include my trans sisters.
Ken saying “I have all the genitals”. Dick(less) jokes will always make me laugh, and I’m not even sorry about it.
Every outfit worn by any Barbie, Ken, or Alan, but ESPECIALLY Simu Liu’s Ken wearing a skin tight little denim number.
I will join the masses by saying that America Ferrara’s speech was absolutely life-giving and affirming while at the same time causing the anti-patriarchy dragon that lives in my soul to awake from it’s momentary rest and start BELLOWING FIRE. Her speech made me want to hop in my mini-van and drive around to every woman and girl in the entire world and yell “GET IN” and then drive us all on a high speed chase away from the patriarchal systems that continue to fuck up the lives of all the humans of the entire world. PURE FIRE, YA’LL!!!!
The. Details! Gerwig and crew thought of every little thing in creating this film. As a life—long Barbie connoisseur, I appreciated every easter egg and the clear attention to detail.
I loved that the movie addressed the criticism of Barbie and Mattel and decided to face it all without excuse.
Weird Barbie! Our newest Neurodivergent/Queer ICON! We all have a little weird Barbie in us. Some of us more than others. And many of us can relate to being relegated to the outside all while being sought out when help is needed. Weird Barbie hit me right in my AuDHD heart and when I heard Mattel made all us little weirdos a Weird Barbie to have and to hold for our very own I knew I was going to have to have her when she makes her arrival next year.
The message: Being yourself is the best way to be and also FUCK THE PATRIARCHY! Anyone who watched this movie and thought it was anti-man is missing the point and probably missing it to serve their own agenda. I think the movie made it pretty clear what so many of us have been trying to say: Patriarchy is bad for everyone! Equity and Equality are for the benefit everyone! Barbieland wasn’t a utopia when Barbie ran all the things because there were some members of the community that weren’t being thought of. The Kens. And Kens MATTER! Until everyone has a seat at the table, there can’t been peace, unity, and harmony. Ken is Kenough and so is Barbie!
The DIVERSITY! I loved seeing all the sizes, shapes, genders, colors, styles, neurotypes, personalities, abilities, orientations, and careers! I also really loved seeing several discontinued Barbie’s make appearances as I am forever a sucker for the underdog. Or the pooping Barbie Dog.
I loved how Gerwig created a movie that was layered and complex in its messaging while at the same time remaining accessible and fun. It is truly a work of art. I went in with my expectations cranked down about as low as I could get them, and I walked out of the theatre blown away. It’s just really that good. This is a movie for men and for women and everyone in between and beyond. It is a movie about the human condition projected onto a doll and all the ways shit gets weird when we do that.