After a Barbie-less childhood and on the advice of her therapist, Laverne Cox bought her first doll of the iconic American toy brand in 2010 — at the age of 40. “[My therapist said], 'You should buy yourself a Barbie doll, and then give yourself time for little Laverne to play with her and give your little child who still lives inside you that space to play and do the thing that she was denied as a child,'” Cox tells Refinery29. "And so I did that.”
Now in 2022, Cox is going to be a Barbie herself. In celebration of the actor’s 50th birthday, Mattel is releasing a collectible Barbie doll in the trans activist’s likeness as part of its Tribute Collection, which also boasts fellow icons Maya Angelou, Ella Fitzgerald, and Vera Wang. “It's an incredible honour,” Cox says. “Getting to be a part of [the Tribute Collection] feels so special, and letting trans, non-binary, and LGBTQ+ people in general know that we can be a part of that American dream. That space of dreaming, that space of possibility and hope, is something that we should all have.”
It’s a message that’s more vital than ever. Despite the fact that Cox has been working on this deal — and her Barbie — for over a year and a half, it isn’t lost on her that her doll, which inherently celebrates trans identity, will be available to buy in a year when over 130 pieces of legislation that limit trans youth rights have been introduced in states. These anti-trans bills, passed in U.S. states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Cox’s own home state of Alabama, deny young transgender people access to essential gender-affirming care, prohibit trans girls from playing specific sports, and ban them from using bathrooms that don’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth.
“Not only the denial of equal access, [but] the denial of medically necessary health care is incredibly detrimental to these young people,” Cox says. And while it may feel like seeing a Barbie stocked on the shelves of their local store — or advertised on Instagram ads or TV — might not do much, Cox believes it can help young trans people know they’re not alone (along with, of course, changes in legislation). “For them to be able to see this Barbie doll in the likeness of a trans person in this moment, I hope [it] gives them hope,” she says. “When I was a kid, I didn't have access to gender-affirming care. We lived in a world that deeply stigmatised trans people. I didn't even really understand that it was possible for me to be my authentic self. I grew up in that world, and now I have a Barbie doll. So anything is possible.”
This isn’t the first time that Barbie has made strides in representation. After decades of consistently releasing dolls that looked like a very specific body type, and even more specific (very white) race, Mattel released its most diverse line of dolls in 2020, featuring gender-neutral Barbies, as well as dolls with prosthetic limbs and vitiligo. They’re necessary — and long overdue — additions, essential if the brand wants to keep up with their diverse audience (and they should). Featuring a trans activist is the latest step forward. “It's so important for people to be able to see themselves,” Cox agrees. “When it comes to film, and television, and [toys] that kids play with, we need to be able to see ourselves because that helps us to be able to imagine a world where we exist as our authentic selves, instead of imagining that we have to change ourselves to fit in.” And not only that it’s okay, but that those authentic selves should be celebrated and seen as beautiful.
If anything, Cox hopes people who see her doll know one thing: “I hope that trans people know that we will do everything we can to make sure that they are okay, that there are people who love them, that they are lovable, and that trans is beautiful.”