Getting Kinky

I just finished my first of my AWP book booty, Denise Duhamel's Kinky.

Kinky is a book-length sequence of poems about Barbie, the popular fashion doll for young girls, an American icon both for her glamour and beauty as much as for her notorious inhuman measurements and unpopular sentiments ("Math class is tough!")

The poems range from Barbie's imagined/lived experiences ("Planning the Fantasy Wedding," "Barbie's Gyn Appointment," "Barbie in Therapy") to her different incarnations ("Hispanic Barbie," "Bicentennial Barbie") to imagined identities ("Bisexual Barbie," "Antichrist Barbie," "Mormon Barbie").

Duhamel's book is disarming in its seeming innocuous pursuit to both canonize and trivialize Barbie's impact on the world. Her poems express a careful reverence for the doll, for her "flawlessness," while at the same time elegizing her inhumanity. Duhamel's point here seems clear: Barbie's artificiality, her inhumanity, is a direct result of this perfection.

Throughout the poems Duhamel frames Barbie's internal monologues and imagined rants with images of the children who play with her. These small girls appear as casualities of Barbie's perfection. The conceit of the book takes on added weight as each poem drums the same important tune: we cannot be Barbie—and more importantly, what's criminal about Barbie is that she wants to be us! Our flawed bodies, our ability to pathologize and make mistakes, to smile and reveal our crooked teeth.

Barbie quickly becomes the metaphor for the experience of women who grew up playing with her: every woman comes to see herself as plastic, as trapped in her own relationship to flawlessness and imperfection—that Barbie becomes the symbol of a woman's self-image: silent, immobile, abuseable, disposeable, and endlessly replicatable. It's a horrifying realization to come to as a reader, even as a gay man, to have this understanding that the relationship between girls and Barbie is endlessly meaningful in all the most inappropriate ways.

In that girls spend their youths play-acting their skinny, upper middle-class, heterosexual lives through these dolls is ultimately indictable, and the book both makes the indictment and presents itself the way women are perhaps encouraged to present themselves: as harmless, small, doll-like, and laughable. The humor in these poems turns back on itself and turns back onto the reader, questioning whether or not these "small crimes" are truly humorous—or tragic.

Duhamel is not the first (nor the last, to be sure) poet to approach Barbie; David Trinidad, himself a Barbie collector (and dare I say "fanatic") has also approached the subject from a different perspective—Barbie as forbidden object—which is just as interesting and damning as Duhamel's book.

I've grown increasingly fond of Duhamel's work over the past couple of years, especially her small book Une mille et un sentiments (the 300s are soul-crushing) and the poems that appeared at No Tell Motel last year (especially this one, this one, this one, and her discussion of the poems in that issue.

What a great way to start off the destruction of my unread books pile! More to come.


  1. Denise's poems are incredible, and Kinky is one of her best books. A reading she did of her Barbie poems inspired this anthology, Mondo Barbie, first published in 1994, with some of her best Barbie poems, along with works by David Trinidad and others.

  2. This is on my reading list. Loved her collaboration with Maureen Seaton on "Oyl," a series of poems about Olive Oyl, Popeye, et al. Brilliant stuff.

  3. I'm an English professor teaching a course on Images in Women's Lit. I love your blog! I'm going to be checking in to see what you're up to--and I would love to see your films based on poems.