Barbies, Fanfiction, and Queer Desire:
How I Played Gay, then Straight, then Gay Again
Isobel Carnegie, 7th December 2020
When I was little, I could play Barbies for hours.
I would set up elaborate homes out of my pillows and duvets because my favourite Barbie was always raised in a forest by stuffed animals three times her size, mainly because I didn’t have a dollhouse for them. At some point in the narrative a man would always find his way into her part of the forest and need to be saved. The damsel in distress would not be performed in this bedroom.
I didn’t have a Ken doll, only my little brother’s Legolas action figure – who was a head shorter than Barbie, which I liked because I was the tallest in my class. Once my Barbie had saved Legolas from some mild-to-mortal danger, they – of course – got married, my Barbie was reinstated as the proper princess that she was, (a very Dickensian narrative, really), and they settled down to have lots of babies.
I had poor Legolas stick around long enough to “make a baby;” not that I knew what that entailed exactly, just that he was required somehow. Soon after, Legolas would have to go off on a mission or something of that nature, and my Barbie would happily raise her baby with her – equally fashionable and male-free – best friend.
Did I know I was performing the bare minimum requirement of heteronormativity through my favourite pastime? No, not at all. I think that the many hours I spent playing Barbies was one of the most authentic, unencumbered versions of myself almost to date.
This performance of gender and desire norms through story telling stuck with me. Starting in eighth grade, I discovered Harry Potter fanfiction. I had always wanted to be a writer, and fanfiction let me practice character building in a world that was already constructed, stable, and felt safe, where I could comfortably practice heteronormativity. It allowed me to rehearse
"[creating] the illusion of an interior and [organized] gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality." (Butler 173)
I was, and still am, quite feminine, but everything I was supposed to do as a feminine girl related to desire felt deeply uncomfortable for me. I was so uncomfortable that I made a no-sex-until-high-school-graduation pact with myself, though it was probably almost entirely unnecessary. I was a deeply closeted lesbian with anxiety, and boys scared me, made me jittery. I always felt like I had walked off a rollercoaster after a boy talked to me in any way that could have been perceived as flirting (not that it happened often). My first date, in seventh grade, felt like a trap. That kid just got engaged, funnily enough, a true performative gesture. At seventeen I had my first “boyfriend,” a terrifying snare that I felt obligated to let pull me deeper, and deeper. When he asked if I wanted to be his girlfriend, I said, “may as well get it over with.” Each moment I spent with him felt like I was on stage, and no matter how hard I tried to play the girlfriend, I just couldn’t get it right, it never felt natural. I was tense and anxious every moment of that relationship.
For several years at this point I had been practicing for just this: my first boyfriend. I had written countless stories about The Boy and The Girl; I knew exactly how I should be acting and how everything was meant to play out – but the gestures repulsed me. I could create this illusion of a heterosexual, feminine female, but it turned my core self into a twisted, wilted entity. I was failing at intelligible genders, not “[instituting] or [maintaining] relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire.” (Butler 23) I could repeat the actions of heteronormativity all I wanted, but it was really just an illusion that was slowly suffocating me. Despite always wanting a boyfriend who was taller than me, I hated how he had his arm around me, or the more “masculine” boyfriend-specific actions he would perform. I could try and let desire follow gender and sex, but it would never be right, no matter how much fanfiction I wrote to practice performing these acts of gender and desire. (24)
So I broke up with the guy, and kept writing fanfiction. More and more queer characters began popping up, even as main characters. In the security of my stories I could explore and perform first queer-kisses, coming out, even homophobia. My stories were barely even fanfiction anymore: it had allowed me to grow as a writer, but also as a queer person. There was so much queer Harry Potter fanfiction out there, it was reassuring to find a very deeply buried part of myself in something I found comfort in. I no longer write fanfiction, but my own stories, and they are abundant with queers that I hold close to my heart.
Turns out I am really fucking gay. I like being taller than my girlfriend, performing the so-called “boyfriend” acts. But I am still feminine, and in a lot of ways I perform the gender “woman” while simultaneously troubling it with how I perform my desire. Is there life without performativity? Probably not, with the rigid categories of gender and cultural frameworks that stand strong today. However, I think there can be a balance of authenticity too. Perhaps not as authentic as when I used to play Barbies, but pretty darn close.
“Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1–34.
Isobel Carnegie is completing a Master's in Literature at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Her interests lie in Canadian Queer Literature and Toronto’s Queer history.
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