"I wasn't allowed to play with Barbies when I was a kid," Laverne Cox says as Mattel announces a Barbie in her image on May 25, four days before her 50th birthday.
"When I was in my thirties, I was in therapy and my therapist reminded me that it's never too late to have a childhood, and that I should go out and buy myself Barbies and play with them as a way to heal my inner child, and heal my childhood trauma. So I did," Cox tells Marie Claire.
The award-winning actress and activist has broken down barrier after barrier for trans people—and trans people of color especially—throughout her career: She was the first trans person to be nominated for an Emmy, the first to be immortalized as a wax figure, the first to cover a slew of prestigious magazines. But being the first to reach these milestones doesn't make having her own Barbie any less "surreal" for her.
The doll is part of Mattel's Tribute Collection, which has also honored Lucille Ball, Queen Elizabeth II and Vera Wang with their own effigies. And although there are Barbies that look like every celeb from Beyoncé to Joan Jett, Cox is the first openly trans person to have a Barbie made in her image. (Mattel did announce a collection of gender-neutral dolls in 2019, but these weren't made to look like any real-life person.)
Understandably, this new first hits a little different for Cox. "It feels kind of surreal, like I'm going to wake up from a dream," she explains. "But I've seen the doll, and I've been to the design center now, you know, it's real, and so it just feels… [sighs]. It feels really beautifully, particularly [coming up to being] 50 years old and just thinking about my life and everything that has happened and all the hardships and all of the difficulties, and that I get to turn 50 and have this incredible honor, and be the first trans person to have a Barbie made in their likeness is just an incredible honor."
It's a personal honor, yes, but Cox is also aware of what this doll will mean to so many trans folks of all ages. "It's hard for me to process in terms of me, that when I think about the potential that this could have on kids out there, particularly on trans and gender-nonconforming young people, I think it's very, very exciting," she says. "Particularly in this historical moment when trans and gender-nonconforming people are being so viciously attacked with policies … all over the United States."
When Mattel approached Cox with the idea of creating a Barbie in her honor, she didn't have to think about it for long. "In 2015, I saw that Ava Duvernay had a Barbie doll, and I was like, 'I want a Barbie,' and I said this to my manager," she recalls. "Then about two years ago, maybe a year and a half ago, we were approached, and I was like, 'oh my gosh.'" It felt like she had "spoken it into existence."
Cox, a bona fide red-carpet icon, was heavily involved in the design process for her Barbie's outfit. She originally wanted the doll to come with several outfits for kids to get creative with, but was told this would make it more expensive—which she and the brand wanted to avoid. So they came up with a compromise: The Barbie comes with one outfit that can be worn in a bunch of different combinations.
"What I love about what we came up with is that things that I love about my style that have been kind of staples of mine over the years of things I love—I love like boning and bustiers and [peplums] and I love sheer mesh and a catsuit—so we integrated all those elements into the design, and that was so much fun, and I loved that in one outfit, you can have multiple options," she explains. "You can wear the bustier with just the catsuit, you can wear the catsuit with the sheer dress, you can wear it multiple ways."
Barbie Tribute Collection Laverne Cox Collectible Doll
As a kid, Cox was taught to feel ashamed of her desire to play with dolls, and is on a mission to help break that cycle of shame that's so often inflicted on trans kids. "I was shamed for wanting to play with Barbie," she says. "I was shamed for being feminine.
"I was made to feel like I was less than because I was a feminine child and wanted to play with Barbie, so I think when parents, when teachers, when adults don't shame—shame is something that is learned, shame is something that is taught—and so I think that I would encourage adults if their children come to them and say, 'this is who I am, this is what I want to play with,' that they're not told, 'you're not allowed to because of the gender you were assigned at birth.'"
But Cox also wants to make clear, when that shaming does happen to trans kids at the hands of their caretakers, that they can and should take control of their healing as adults. And for her, Barbie has played a huge role in that healing process.
"It was a beautiful thing to get to play with Barbies as an adult, so you know, for me when I think about Barbie, there's a whole history of desiring Barbie, wanting to play with Barbie and being denied, and then as an adult being able to find a sense of healing with Barbie in relationship to my childhood," she says.
"So I would love for people of all ages to sort of be able to… and I know Barbie is collected by people of all ages, so I think about the kids who could play with Barbie, but I also think about the adults who maybe were denied that opportunity—maybe trans or gender-nonconforming—who now have a representation of themselves a little bit through my Barbie, and that's a wonderful thing."
As Lizzo would say, it's about damn time.
Iris Goldsztajn is a London-based journalist, editor and author. She is the morning editor at Marie Claire, and her work has appeared in the likes of InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Bustle and Shape. Iris writes about everything from celebrity news and relationship advice to the pitfalls of diet culture and the joys of exercise. She has many opinions on Harry Styles, and can typically be found eating her body weight in cheap chocolate.
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