barbie in the poetry world

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Unless you live under a rock, you know that Barbie is having a moment. I have *not* seen Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie yet, but based on record ticket sales ($1 BILLION at the box office in its third week) I may be the only one.

Margot Robbie Pink GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

When it’s released on streaming services, I may or may not give it a watch. Still, it has captured my attention. Earlier this summer while in a theater to see Asteroid City, I saw a preview for the Barbie movie and was surprised to be slightly intrigued. Sometimes our multitudes aren’t what we’d like them to be.

Barbie’s complicated place in the world

Like so many people my age, especially those who identify as feminists, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Barbie — emphasis on the hate. But that may be selective memory or revisionist history. I was an angsty kid to start with and Barbie stressed me out. I played with her some, but…

  • I found keeping track of her tiny shoes a ridiculous burden.
  • As a rule follower, I struggled with conflicting desires — cut her bangs or do what I was told (i.e. be “good”) and not destroy something my father’s hard-earned money had bought?
  • Barbie surfaced economic differences that I found embarrassing: My grandmother crocheted bulky clothes for my Barbie while other kids had store-bought outfits for their Barbies. (The same dynamic existed in my own closet: My mother sewed many of my clothes.)

Culture, too, has struggled with Barbie. It’s safe to say she’s an icon, but for good or evil? It’s easy enough to critique Barbie’s representation of beauty via unrealistic body proportions, for example, and whiteness. And even though Mattel has responded over the years with more diverse dolls, is it to help children see themselves or to sell dolls? (It is, of course, the latter.)

Creators of the 2023 film say the complexity is part of Barbie’s legacy. I found an interview Greta did with the crew at The View. In it, she says,

Barbie is complex as an icon. [She] was invented in 1959, and she’d gone to the moon before women could have credit cards. So sometimes she’s been incredibly ahead of culture but then at the same time she had a body that if you were a human woman with that body you wouldn’t be able to stand up. … There’s always been this tension between the aspirational version and then how it presents something unrealistic.

Greta Gerwig

I plan to leave a more robust cultural conversation about Barbie to scholars, but as a poet the tension Gerwig describes is pure gold. Contemporary poets are all over it and have been for many years — taking everything that comes with this cultural icon and making it their own.

Barbie in poetry

One thing I love about poetry is the space it holds for nuanced conversation. It’s so magnificent when poets get their teeth in something, shake it about and snarl at it or fawn over it (or both!). Poems are places where we can wonder about things and be in awe just as likely in response to something beautiful as to something terrible.

Barbie is a spectacular subject for poetry. In addition to the cultural baggage noted above, she offers opportunities for ekphrasis and persona poems. She conjures nostalgia and personal story. She invites reflection on identity and body image. She churns up questions on gender, class and power. And of course, there are all those outfits: Who is she, really? “Just” a doll? Perhaps.

It’s all grist for the mill, as they say — frothy, frothy fodder for poets.

I, personally, haven’t written any Barbie poems, but I always enjoy reading them. Of course there are full collections worth noting, including KINKY by Denise Duhamel, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang and Never Picked First for Playtime by Dustin Brookshire, which is an homage to Duhamel’s. I share sample poems below from each, but before we get to those links, let’s chat a bit about these books.

KINKY by Denise Duhamel (Orchises Press, 1997)

In Denise Duhamel‘s Kinky, Barbie joins the military, goes to the gynecologist, survives apocalypse, sees a therapist, explores kink and reads The Metamorphosis. She is extra terrestrial and religious fanatic. The collection itself is proof of the pliability of Barbie as an idea and icon. Here’s what Duhamel said about this (and all these Barbies) in an interview earlier this month:

Whatever I was thinking about, I could just put Barbie in that situation, and it became a way to make feminist statements that were funny. There’s a wink and a nod in the poems. When I look back at the thinking process, it was just one foot in front of the other, or one high heel in front of the other. I just kept going.

Denise Duhamel in an interview published at Florida International University News

And here’s a little bit more about the writing process for Kinky, as expressed to Andrew Wittstadt in 2019:

I had so much fun using Barbie as a vehicle to explore feminism, class, race and so on. When I was writing those poems I felt like a novelist because every day I woke up knowing what my project was, who my main character was, and so on. Every new poem usually, for me, is like starting from scratch. But when I was working on the Barbie poems I just found my groove. Whatever I was thinking about—or was in the news at that time—could be expressed via Barbie. It was really like playing—yes, like playing dolls, but also as Carl Jung writes ‘the creation of something new is not accomplished by intellect, but by the play instinct.’

Denise Duhamel in The McNeese Review

Over 40 Barbies inhabit Duhamel’s dream house, offering proof of something I believe is core to poetry — its ability (its insistence?) to make meaning by translating, transposing, transforming and transcending what’s right in front of us. The something. The anything. The everything. When Limp Wrist magazine dedicated a 2-part issue to Kinky for its 25th anniversary, editor Dustin Brookshire put it this way:

Kinky is the book I recommend that shows poetry can be about anything.  It’s the book I pull from when people tell me that they don’t like poetry. It’s a book that I keep a backup copy of in case my original is damaged beyond use. Kinky is a book that I turn to again and again, and it never ceases to entertain and inspire me. . .

Dustin Brookshire on Kinky by Denise Duhamel

“Poetry can be about anything.” That’s also what I’ve learned over the years as a dedicated reader of Duhamel’s poetry and why I’m so grateful I found her early in my poetry career: the possibilities! … along with how well they pair with audacity, including the audacity to admit that the possibilities themselves may not be satisfying.

In her box, elastic bands hold back her arms
and the plastic overlay she peers through
distorts her view of the world.
It’s not only a romantic fling she desires:
there are hot air balloon rides,
night school classes, charity work.
Barbie comforts herself
knowing she’s not much different
from the rest of us, juggling gratitude,
ambition, passivity, and guilt.

“Marriage” by Denise Duhamel (from Kinky)

At least there’s sisterhood, Barbie and Duhamel seem to say. We can feel seen, if nowhere else, in the poem.

BARBIE CHANG by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)

In Kinky, Barbie takes on many identities, but in Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang, Barbie is the stand-in for a singular person: “Barbie Chang [is] a mashup of the classic Mattel toy and her own surname, creating a protagonist’s voice that can draw freely from both personal experience and cultural significance” (Teague Bohlen in West Word). Every time I pick up Barbie Chang, I’m fascinated by its persona-in-reverse poems. Writing for the Poetry Foundation, Chang says, “I felt that I could expand even these very personal elegies through this character who had become a sort of shadow, projection and even a friend.”

According to Chang, she stumbled upon the approach while troubleshooting poems that weren’t doing what she wanted them to do:

I began writing poems that were first-person, mostly autobiographical poems. The poems stemmed from some of my experiences being a parent in a school community that was very insular, dealing with the long-term illness of my mother and managing my father’s dementia. … I never felt like these poems were working until one day, the name ‘Barbie Chang’ appeared in my head. The idea of a character who is Chinese American but named Barbie struck me as strangely funny and paradoxical and suddenly, this character began to come alive. Barbie became a Chinese American woman who was born in America but could never fully assimilate with certain types of women because of her appearance and culture, even if she were named Barbie. As an experiment, I replaced all first-person ‘I’s with ‘Barbie Chang’ and revised the poems with that character in mind, and the poems seemed to breathe and expand. My imagination could wander and I felt freed of autobiographical constrictions. I edited and expanded the poems and wrote new ones for another three months. …

Victoria Chang at the Poetry Foundation

As a self-professed process nerd, I love this behind-the-scenes intel and try to keep persona in my quiver as a way to break things open when I feel stuck. But there’s so much more Barbie accomplishes in this collection. Here, Chang discusses how altering the reality occupied by the poems was both a revision tool and a gesture toward connection with the audience/reader:

I think the third-person character Barbie Chang appeared as a subconscious way to respond to the commonly used phrase, ‘the personal is universal.’ Barbie Chang was based on my own personal experiences but she allowed the poems to become more pliable and more expansive. I didn’t want the autobiographical to be a slave to truth or reality. And in hindsight, I was probably avoiding the autobiographical in the hunt for some kind of ‘universal’ which I understood would risk erasure of the self or my particular kind of self.

Perhaps I was also subconsciously thinking that my own ‘personal’ could never be universal (because the universal that I had known all my life wasn’t ever really universal in the first place, but rather was the male, white universal). I think I reconciled my internal conflicts over the idea that ‘the personal is universal’ by finding a hybrid space between the first and third person that allowed my imagination to grow. I’ve also refined my thinking about autobiography and the phrase ‘the personal is universal’—it not only feels too binary, but also no longer feels wholly relevant. Maybe the personal is only one kind of fluid and cross-sectional universal. Perhaps universal is the wrong word entirely and commonality or communal are better words.

Victoria Chang at the Poetry Foundation

And in that space — imaginative, communal, personal — Chang and Chang’s Barbie affirm the female experience as a serious topic for poetry. “This book rejects the implication,” writes Chelsea Whitton in Cincinnati Review, “that domestic poems—work about childbearing and rearing, about caring for one’s aging parents, about social anxiety and the link between financial stability and personal agency—lack the stakes for ambitious literature.”

NEVER PICKED FIRST FOR PLAYTIME by Dustin Brookshire (Harbor Editions, 2023)

In OutSFL, Gregg Shapiro writes, “Brookshire’s chapbook* is an homage to an homage, honoring both Denise Duhamel’s Barbie-themed 1997 full-length poetry collection book Kinky, as well as Barbie herself.” The nesting doll quality of these tributes is so delightful, as is the way Brookshire brings Barbie into the 21st century… *especially* since it’s so far from the entrance she choreographed for herself in the film currently in theaters.

Look out Margot Robbie—here’s the real truth about the fashion icon who started as a gag gift party doll. Dustin Brookshire’s got the true intel. Taking a cue from his friend and mentor Denise Duhamel, Dustin Brookshire’s renderings of  Barbie are beyond Beyonce fierce, Toy Story without the other toys—these poems put the fun in dysfunction and the tics in politics. This collection is hilarious, cutting, knowing—we thought we knew everything about Barbie, but the truth is, she’s everywhere: she’s the omniscient pulse of a consumerist nation, and Dustin Brookshire pulls out all the tropes to make us laugh and cringe at what our fave fashion doll has become.

Allison Joseph at Small Harbor Publishing

Dropped into a churned-up cultural and political climate that will be familiar to anyone paying attention, Brookshire’s Barbie contends with COVID, homophobia and the MAGA crowd. She riffs on Golden Girls and Good Bones. She questions religion and history. She confesses her guilty pleasures and attends her own funeral. “Dustin is not afraid to go there,” says Denise Duhamel in the book’s foreward, “using Barbie as a vehicle to respond to our fraught cultural moment. He is fearless in his accusations but also tender towards the poems themselves.”

We’re so lucky to have Brookshire’s voice in the Barbie poetry lineage, and I echo what Maureen Seaton** asks on the back cover of the book, “Could there be a better time or place for a new raft of Barbie poems?”

Barbie poems

Now, let’s read some poems!

Poems from KINKY



Additional Barbie-centric poems published in lit mags and available online

Poems with Barbie cameos

Did I miss a Barbie poem that belongs on this list? Let me know in the comments!

*Find Dustin on social media! In addition to being hilarious (and an advocate for other poets), he often does giveaways, and that’s how I got my copy of the chapbook. Thank you, Dustin, for the generosity!

**During the writing of this post, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Maureen Seaton on August 25.


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