Summer's hit movie has brought out Barbie admirers in droves. They descend on theaters en masse in joyful anticipation. And why not? The 12-inch American icon – born in 1959 and reproduced more than one billion times since – has entertained millions around the world while morphing over the years into everything from Air Force pilot, business executive and surgeon to game show host, rapper and even cat burglar: a true champion of female empowerment in the professional world.
Back in the 1990s, creative writing professor Denise Duhamel made the plastic figure the subject of more than 40 poems for her book “Kinky,” a catalog of prevailing social ills and modern-day realities. (Titles include “Barbie as Mafiosa,” “Barbie Joins a Twelve Step Program,” “Barbie's Gyn Appointment,” “Math Class Is Tough,” “Afterlife Barbie.”) Selections were later translated and published in Germany as a 20-page chapbook named “Barbieland,” available for purchase in that country through vending machines.
Duhamel has taught at FIU for nearly 30 years. She has 16 full-length poetry books and 11 chapbooks to her credit and has edited four anthologies.
Here’s what she had to say the other day.
FIU News: What was your relationship with Barbie prior to writing about her?
Duhamel: I was not a collector or anything like that. At the time, probably 1966 or 1967, they seemed really expensive, so I only had one, and I remember my grandmother would sew these teeny tiny clothes for her. I had dye-your-hair Barbie, and I can’t believe they made that for kids. It came with ammonia and little sponges. She had blonde hair, but you could use a sponge to make her a redhead, and then you used another sponge to give her black hair. When I was playing with it, my mother had to open the windows. It was toxic.
We didn’t have the Dream House, nothing like that. Now, it’s so consumer oriented. She’s like a starter. You buy her, you buy the other stuff.
What made you think Barbie would be the perfect protagonist for a poetry collection?
The first poem I wrote about her is ‘Miss America 1990.’ That came out of my going with friends to a restaurant. We had the worst server possible, kept getting everything wrong. Someone said, ‘Oh, she’s such a Barbie.’ We used [the term ‘Barbie’] as a derogatory thing, like an airhead. And then we started talking about our Barbie stuff. One woman had very conservative parents, and she couldn’t have a Ken because they would have to be married. Another one grew up in Brooklyn, and her brothers used to jump over the Dream House and try to attack the Barbies. Another friend said that her brother took the dolls apart and buried the body parts in the yard.
I have nieces, one of whom just turned 40, and I was visiting them when they were 6 and 4. One of their doll’s heads popped off, and their father thought it was the most hilarious thing. They had a Ken, and he popped Ken’s head off and put it on Barbie’s body, and the kids were screaming. So in another poem, Barbie puts Ken’s head on her body and Ken puts Barbie’s head on his body to try and get into each other’s heads. My point was, ‘Can men and women really understand each other?’
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.
To you, what did she stand for?
In my poems, Barbie is never in Barbieland [an alternate reality in which the dolls are in charge]. Instead, she’s being played with or torn apart, bitten by a dog, melting on a stove, just all sorts of abuse. As a writer, I started off not liking her very much. [That dislike] was about beauty standards and the ‘Barbification’ of culture. It was about certain archetypes of women.
So, there was conflict there for you.
Oh, yeah, even more so now as I get older.
And yet here we are: She's comes to life.
Tell me. It was 1994 or ‘95, in the East Village, off, off Broadway, that we did this one-woman show called ‘American Doll.’ We had done three or four shows, and then we got a cease-and-desist order from Mattel, which was so weird because I felt like there weren’t even that many attendees. We got in trouble only for two things, which were using a picture of a real Barbie on the poster – which we put up on telephone poles - and for a sight gag in the play where the actor tries to do jumping jacks and, of course, she can’t because she’s in her high heels and falls down.
For my book cover, I made sure not to use any real Barbie images. Instead, I found this painting that I call ‘Healthy Appetite Barbie.’
Inquiring minds what to know: Did you make seeing the movie a big deal?
I did, even though I really thought it was going to be terrible. Because of my experience with the cease-and-desist order, I figured this movie, sanctioned by Mattel, was going to be awful, just one big commercial for Barbie. But how could I not go? I wore my giant Barbie earrings and went with seven people. It was a blast, really fun.
Any reason to believe the scriptwriters would have read your stuff? Any contact from them?
Nothing. Director Greta Gerwig – who I think is a genius – never reached out. I guess she could have found the book somehow, but there was no direct communication. But I’m up for the sequel, if she needs ideas.
Do you think Barbie has been unfairly politicized – I'm thinking particularly of responses to the movie – or does she have some inherently political stance?
Well, her political stance would be consumerism, right? You would think that most people in America would be down for that. In the movie itself, when she goes to the real world and she’s ogled and she punches that guy in the face, that take down of the patriarchy is really funny. I guess some people were threatened by that. I don’t know.
Did you ever see yourself as Barbie?
When ‘Kinky’ came out in 1997, I had died my hair red because, back in the day, remember those dumb blonde jokes? When I was a kid, I had blonde hair. I remember trying this experiment because I read somewhere that if you had red hair, people will let you cut in line. Well, people were nicer to me. Well, not nicer but more respectful.
I think I was always trying to be the opposite of Barbie. I just wanted to be one thing, not everything. I just wanted to be a writer, and I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age.
Barbie changes careers like an outfit. She wants to be a doctor, a social worker, the president, an astronaut. That always kind of annoyed me. I know it’s all play, but I’m like, focus!
Denise, would you say that dyeing your hair red was, after all, very much like the experience of your own childhood Barbie?
Oh, my gosh! I never thought of that!
In the end, does Barbie maybe just want to be a toy?
Exactly. But what a weird toy.