Director Susan Stern and her daughter Nora playing with Barbies around the time "Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour" came out 25 years ago. (Photo/Courtesy Stern)
Director Susan Stern and her daughter Nora playing with Barbies around the time "Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour" came out 25 years ago. (Photo/Courtesy Stern)

When I made a Barbie movie 25 years ago, I didn’t realize she (and I) were in a closet

Lately, I’ve been thinking about closets. Barbie doll closets. LGBTQ closets. Black closets. Jewish closets.

My film, “Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour,” which came out 25 years ago, began in a closet. Actually, a small cabinet where my daughter Nora, then 4 years old, shoved her Barbie dolls.

One day Nora proposed we play a game where one Barbie was jealous of another Barbie. “Nora,” I said, with feminist earnestness, “Women don’t have to be jealous of other women.”

Nora just looked at me. “Mom,” she said. “How about we play what I want to play and then we can play what you want to play?”

When I shared that story, people felt compelled to share their Barbie stories — and I knew I had a film. But it’s only recently that I realized how much my film had to do with closets.

Why is it that LGBTQ people were arguably the first to make Barbie play an artform?  Maybe when you have to fight your way out of a closet, you learn the art of dress-up.

“We’re born naked, and everything else is drag,” RuPaul recently said.

The late, great (and unauthorized) Barbie designer Franklin Lim Liao does a star turn in “Barbie Nation,” along with genius “Barbie player” Allen Moreli, who had Barbie and Ken stage the memorial when his partner died of AIDS.

But Franklin and Allen were a nonstarter for the cable channel that offered me a coveted pre-sale.

“You can have one gay man in it, but not two,” a cable executive explained.

I declined. “Barbie Nation” features not only Allen and Franklin but also RuPaul, Barbie at gay pride and Caroline and Barbara, a lesbian couple who play S&M Barbies.

I made “Barbie Nation” in 1998. Suddenly, that’s looking like the good old days. Back then, at the national Barbie doll collectors convention in Birmingham, Alabama, we filmed a fashion show that included both children and cross-dressers — a couple, in which a woman was dressed as Ken and her male partner as Barbie. And not only did no one appear to be damaged, as today’s anti-drag legislation would suggest, but it was all performed under the blessing of a fervent Jesus prayer. All I can say is: make America great again!

But seriously, I built my own closets back in 1998. I filmed Marcella, a wonderful Black collector of Black Barbies and did so much research into the history of Black dolls that I thought of making that my next film. But I knew I wasn’t the right person to make that film, and the Black Barbie section grew too big to  fit into “Barbie Nation.” I regretted that, and so I added a Black Barbie section into the 25th anniversary director’s cut.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Lagueria Davis made “Black Barbie,” now on the film festival circuit, an outstanding documentary that addresses the beauty and necessity of Black dolls.

My closeted Jewishness was harder to address. I read in J. that Ruth Handler experienced antisemitism in Denver before moving to California in the 1930s and convinced her new husband to adopt his middle name, “Elliot” rather than his first name, “Izzy” to appear more “Americanized.”

But I couldn’t tell you that firsthand because I never asked Ruth about being Jewish and didn’t put anything about her Judaism in “Barbie Nation.”

When the subject of someone’s Judaism came up, we wouldn’t utter the word ‘Jew’ aloud.  Instead, we would say, ‘They’re fellow Canadians.’

My family experienced antisemitism when we moved from Chicago to California in the 1960s. My parents said they couldn’t buy the house they wanted because of anti-Jewish restrictions in the subdivision. When my family was out in public, and the subject of someone’s Judaism came up, we wouldn’t utter the word “Jew” aloud.  Instead, we would say, “They’re fellow Canadians.”

I remember thinking that “making Ruth Jewish” in “Barbie Nation” would narrow the film’s audience. But I think now that I was just used to being in the closet.

Ruth and I recognized each other instantly, however, and bonded. After our first interview in Florida, she let me come back to her Los Angeles home, film intimate scenes with Elliot and their daughter Barbara and borrow her family and Mattel photos.

Ruth was a woman of tremendous force and joy. Elliot was a wonderful painter as well as sculptor. And Barbara Segal, I recall as beautiful and strong enough to speak her truth to her mother, who was, as has been noted, a “force of nature.”

I didn’t change the “Barbie Nation” director’s cut to mention Jewishness – because I couldn’t do it. I had never asked Ruth anything about Jewishness so there was nothing to put in.

But I changed. My Spanish, atheist husband died 10 years ago. Four years after he died and I was dating again, my mother said: “Why don’t you find a Jewish one this time?”

So I went on JDate and found a Jewish mensch, and now I am, with him, an active member of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.

What I realize now is that when we come out of the closet — whether about being trans, insisting that children of color need dolls that look like them or saying “Jew” in public — we don’t narrow the story by being seen, we make the narrative broader. That’s what some white people don’t understand: No one wants to erase their story — but it’s also not the only story.

Or to restate the wisdom of my 4-year-old daughter, Nora: We can each play what we want to play. We just have to take turns.

Susan Stern
Susan Stern

Susan Stern is the director of “Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour,” which is available on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube. Her new film, “Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez,” can be streamed on Amazon, Google Play, Tubi and YouTube.