Materialist Barbie: Scarcity and Marginalization Included
by Jesus Sanchez
Beth Fowkes Tobin argues that Jane Austen minimalizes the economic factors in Emma and thus denies “their importance in shaping individuals’ lives” (468). Austen, Tobin would claim, hides the economic problems present in her age and in her novel by wrapping them in the semblance of personal and moral issues, all of them resolved by the different marriages that occur at the end of Emma. And it is in light of Tobin’s accusations that this essay will examine, through a Marxist literary perspective, what economic and societal issues might be overlooked in the apparent simplicity of Sandra Cisneros’ short story, “Barbie-Q.” This essay will show how Cisneros’ “Barbie-Q” is ultimately an exposition and critique of an economic scarcity and marginalization in a materialistic and consumerist culture.
In order to first show how “Barbie-Q” exposes the strife of economic scarcity, and borrowing from Tobin’s language, it is necessary to “translate” the “personal and individual” from Cisneros’ narrative into the “economic” (468). This consists in examining the story itself for its depiction of scarcity; that is, for a depiction of those who do not have enough resources to fulfill their needs or desires.
The narrator, presumably Cisneros, is addressing a childhood playmate, perhaps Licha to whom she dedicates the story. Their games are restricted by their having only two Barbie dolls, which is all they can afford: “We have to make do with your mean-eyed Barbie and my bubble hair Barbie and our one outfit apiece not including the sock dress” (423). The following Sunday is a joyful occasion of “loopity-loops and pirouetting” when at the street market they find new clothing to buy for their Barbie dolls: “How much? Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, until they [their parents] say yes.” Indeed, Miriam Forman-Brunell recounts how the Barbie doll was another of the “goods and gadgets” which many families “could probably ill afford,” but in which post-war “Americans were encouraged to find fulfillment.” Forman-Brunell adds, “Barbie’s extensive wardrobe exemplified the ethos of an expanding consuming culture,” i.e. a materialistic and consumerist culture “where spending replaced saving.” The Barbie doll was a product and prime example of this culture.
The fact that the girls come from a family that cannot afford Barbie dolls begins to reveal the economic scarcity and the resulting marginalization. It depicts scarcity because, after all, they have to purchase the new doll outfits in a street flea market among “aluminum foil, and hubcaps, and a pink shag rug, and windshield wiper blades, and dusty mason jars, and a coffee can full of rusty nails” (423). This exposes a resulting marginalization, which is nothing less than the manifest distinction between those-who-have and those-who-have-not. They are not daughters of affluence. They are daughters of scarcity; they are those-who-have-not. This is driven home more poignantly when, much to their amazement, the girls find exactly what they are lacking:
Bendable Legs Barbie with her new page-boy hairdo. Midge, Barbie’s best friend. Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend. Skipper, Barbie’s little sister. Tutti and Todd, Barbie and Skipper’s tiny twin sister and brother. Skipper’s friends, Scooter and Ricky. Alan, Ken’s buddy. And Francie, Barbie’s MOD’ern cousin (423).It is poignant only when the reader discovers that the newfound dolls are the spoiled but surviving products of a toy warehouse fire, “all of them damaged with water and smelling of smoke.” And these girls are glad to settle for the dolls that reek of smoke “even after you wash and wash and wash them.”
The conflict, if it can thus be called, of their economic scarcity seems to be resolved by the fortuitous fire that destroys the warehouse. One can almost imagine Tobin’s finger raised in condemnation, reprimanding Cisneros for so simply dismissing the issue of economic scarcity and marginalization and silencing it with a happy ending. And yet the fact that a toy warehouse, a center of consumerist culture, has to burn down in order for the girls to get their happy ending should be a clear indication to the reader that the story will not gloss over the consumerist and materialist culture as unimportant; it will not refrain from criticizing the marginalization that results from economic scarcity in this culture.
The girls are no less marginalized by the end of the short story because they are well aware that, even with their new dolls, they are not the daughters of affluence. They know that their dolls were not purchased at the store, “in nice clean boxes”; they know that they had to settle for buying on Maxwell Street flea market from the left overs of a fire; they know that one of their dolls has a melted foot; they know that their dolls will always smell of smoke. The society that obsesses over the consumption of material goods will never fail to marginalize those who suffer from economic scarcity. It further widens the chasm between the rich and the poor, the superior and the inferior.
It will be easy for the reader to glance over this criticism. After all, the girls themselves ask, “so?” So what if their dolls smell like smoke, and so what if Barbie’s MOD’ern cousin has a melted leg? “If you dress her in her new ‘Prom Pinks’ outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch, and hair bow included, so long as you don’t lift her dress, right?—who’s to know.” The reality of marginalization that results from scarcity in a consumerist/materialist culture is both an external and an internal reality. Who’s to know, you ask? The girls know. And now the reader knows, too.
Forman-Brunell, Miriam. "What Barbie Dolls Have to Say about Postwar American Culture." Advanced Placement: U.S. History. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.