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Barbie riding on a horse on the cover of DS game Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp. Image: Pixel Tales/Activision

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Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp helped me navigate the dreaded ‘Pink Aisle’

Barbie was outdoorsy and got her hands dirty too

When you are 7 years old, your favorite color is a big deal. It’s the first thing new friends at the playground ask you about, it decides which shoes you buy, and, most importantly, it is a litmus test for gender expression. But my favorite color was a conglomerate I dubbed “greenorange,” and I was definitely not passing this test.

Growing up as a queer tomboy Gen Z-er, I hated the color pink and I despised every store’s dreaded Pink Aisle, which seemed to limit what it meant to be a girl. And, of course, there was no resident of the Pink Aisle more notorious than Barbie. She wasn’t necessarily my mortal enemy, but I didn’t see myself in her the way I did in other characters — she was a girly girl, and I loved bugs and trains and ordering the “boy toy” with Happy Meals.

In some ways, I was admittedly afraid of femininity. The Pink Aisle’s dolls and kitchen sets imposed the patronizing idea that girls were fragile and sensitive and destined for motherhood, while boys were tough and adventurous and could play with anything. Committing to girlhood felt like surrendering to a life of limitations. It made me afraid that, if I wore pink, I’d be seen as nothing more than “like other girls.”

So when I was inducted into gamerhood with a light blue Nintendo DSi, I was baffled by my parents’ decision to include Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp among my starting roster of games. But I was also newly 7 and terrible at gaming, so when I ran into roadblocks in every other game, I hesitantly picked it up. Its intuitive arrows that pointed toward objectives made it one of the first games I ever beat. Most importantly, though, its character customization and gameplay (paired with my own imagination) showed me that gender roles are meaningless, and helped change what femininity means to me.

Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp follows Barbie on a trip to her family’s stable. During her week-long stay, she learns how to ride horses, helps out at the stable, and eventually competes in a riding show. It’s such a simple licensed game, but the way it represents Barbie (who I previously viewed as a perfect, one-dimensional girl) felt revolutionary to my outdoorsy 7-year-old self.

This was especially important because, throughout my childhood, it felt like the world did not want girls to go outside. During one school assembly that featured a Boy Scout leader discussing the troop’s annual camping trip, I asked if girls could join. The answer was, of course, no, and I was subjected to years of volunteering and making blankets in Girl Scouts instead of setting up tents and starting campfires in forests.

In Barbie Horse Adventures, though, I could do everything that Boy Scouts did (just with a horse) without being a boy. Each day, Barbie rides through a remote forest or beach. Its minigames feel rugged, too, with Barbie catching fireflies or stargazing or cleaning dirt out of her horse’s hooves. The most surprising minigame becomes available after Barbie’s horse kicks down a wall and she’s asked to repair it. When I played this at 7, I was amazed, thinking, They’re entrusting??? Barbie??? A girly girl??? With a hammer and nails??? Barbie was clearly not afraid of anything — she could even get her hands a little dirty!

When these minigames weren’t enough to make Barbie feel relatable, I could bend her to my will through customization and headcanons. I could shun the game’s overwhelmingly pink wardrobe and stick to a black coat. I could master bug hunting while ignoring girlier minigames. Even customizing my horse felt defiant in a way — pink was the default color for the horse’s bows and saddle, but I eagerly changed them to green and orange. This Barbie was not at the Roberts Stables to wear pink and prance around — she was there to repair walls and explore the muddy forest and kick up some serious dirt in competitions.

This was initially a way to rebel against the game, but it became part of who Barbie was to me — resilient and versatile — as I grew more comfortable with her femininity. Playing as her became a way for me to explore gendered fashion, almost as if I was trying girliness on like a dress in Barbie’s own DreamHouse wardrobe. While I mostly clung to the game’s black and blue outfits, I’d occasionally try on a hot-pink coat or a salmon vest. It was a way to briefly step into the world of pink in a way that wasn’t committal, which was crucial because committing was a big deal.

People seem to notice the way others present their gender before anything else, so even the smallest stylistic experiment becomes a definitive branding change on display for the world to see (and criticize) — especially during childhood. It’s especially uncomfortable for people to analyze meaningless traits or clothing items under a gendered microscope when you’re kid in the process of figuring quite literally everything out. Wearing pink once didn’t necessarily mean I was swapping four square in favor of a playground career in playing house — most of the time, it meant nothing other than “I think this jacket looks cool.”

And when I did go through actual phases of feeling pressured to be a “girly girl,” it signaled a change so big it could shift tectonic plates. One thoughtfully observant teacher even penned a poem lamenting a particularly inauthentic pink phase of mine, asking: “What makes a girl turn from orange to pink?”

Barbie Horse Adventures, on the other hand, was a virtual playground, one that allowed me to try on pink without feeling exposed. Because of this, unlike my prior pink phases, Barbie Horse Adventures helped me learn how to present myself in a way that was authentic. Not a hatred-fueled rejection of the Pink Aisle, and not a total concession to the demands of branded femininity, but somewhere in between. Eventually, after swapping Barbie’s outfit over and over, I became slightly more comfortable wearing pink in real life, too.

Reclaiming pink from the Pink Aisle later allowed me to view gender through less of a black-and-white lens, picking and choosing the things I wanted to experience rather than trying to conform to a laundry list of feminine- or masculine-coded traits. I’m now a drummer, game developer, and avid outdoor explorer, all things that the Pink Aisle in the 2000s probably did not want me to be. And, for others, especially trans people, breaking free from gender roles might enable confidence or a new understanding of their own identities. (And none of these things harm anybody, despite what some recently enacted laws might want you to believe.)

Thanks to my experience with Barbie Horse Adventures, I now know that, just like “greenorange” or Barbie herself, gender is multifaceted. I know that I can wear makeup with baggy cargo pants from the men’s section. I can get my ears pierced and still refuse to shave my legs. And, hell yeah, I can get my pink hiking shoes stuck in the mud on a long hike.