Both Insider and Outsider: Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang

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At first glance, you might expect Victoria Chang’s latest collection, Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, November 2017), like Denise Duhamel’s Kinky, to be a satirical take on the culture of female beauty and its idealization of Barbie. But Chang’s book is far more complex—while it does tackle the American archetype of unachievable perfection, it also takes on the “ideal man” (in the repeating character of Mr. Darcy), mean girls in childhood and adulthood (in the repeating, threatening character of “The Circle,”), as well as the pressures of work, money, motherhood, and art.

Chang’s book continues her trajectory (from Circle, her first book, to The Boss, her third) towards a more experimental style, free-flowing and often without punctuation. When read out loud, these poems might seem like stream-of-consciousness writing, but on the page they look structured and neat, their lack of punctuation and white space scattered purposefully on the page. Some even closely resemble sonnets. The playful yet disturbing cover art featuring disembodied Barbie legs in blue is an accurate reflection of the book’s content, sharply critiquing social norms while simultaneously letting the reader in on the joke.

As with the speaker in The Boss, the protagonist of Chang’s Barbie poems is both insider and outsider, a character who has artistic ambitions, ambiguous feelings about money, and has worked on Wall Street. Yet the book also bristles with the angst of working motherhood and the anxieties of a bourgeois lifestyle that both attracts and repels the main character. From the first poem of the book, “Once Barbie Worked”:

Once Barbie Chang worked on a
___street named Wall

once she sprinkled her yard with
___timed water once…

and that started her always wanting
___something better

This book also focuses more on the protagonist’s relationships with romantic partners, as a daughter and as a mother. Some of the most moving poems have to do with the loss of the speaker’s mother, her father’s dementia, and her passionate letters to her daughter. The second and fourth sections are a long series of sonnet-esque poems full of advice and anxiety for the future and dedicated “To P,” a daughter. In these ways, this collection feels more personal than Chang’s previous work, and more emotionally charged.

As the book progresses, the speaker endures more and more loss, especially the loss of her mother after a long struggle with lung disease. The last poem of the third section, “How Alone Barbie Chang’s Mother,” feels like the final goodbye of the book and expresses all the emotions a woman feels on losing a mother:

…at some point most of us give birth
at some point we lose

a mother at some point we are all
disappointments who

cannot possibly care for others when
our mothers die we

are all lost…some want to name us as grieving others wrongly
name us heroes

Though the book packs an emotional punch, many of the poems also flirt with the lighter side. The language is full of jokes but is never merely jokey, as seen in “Barbie Chang Loves Evites”:

Barbie Chang loves Evites Paperless
___Party Posts that host her

ego patch her holes she puts barrettes
___on her heart so other

people will see her will hear her…

…invitations once she heard the Circle
___planning a birthday party
for a daughter…the

mother can also feel the pain she heard
___the ice skating party

was a hit little girls going in figure
___eights their breath

coming out in clouds shaped like
___little white hearts

Chang embraces romance in a series of poems about her speaker’s love interest, “Mr. Darcy.” These are charming, sharp observations on romantic relationships, which add an element of lightness to a book that is otherwise fraught with grief, worry, and loss. However, even these poems retain an element of social criticism, as in one of my favorite poems in the book, “In the End Elizabeth:”

…just wanted the
___house and a horse not

much more what if Mr. Darcy didn’t
___own the house or…

did Cinderella really love the prince or
___just the prints on the…curtains in the ballroom…

Barbie Chang is an intelligent, lively portrayal of the pressures on contemporary women (especially mothers), and a breathlessly entertaining read. Chang’s faint echoes of language play throughout the collection, reflecting how “Barbie Chang” fits into different parts of society—work, family, and romance—and juggles the multiple identities of a modern woman. This book is fun but also takes on challenging ideas of cultural identity, class, and gender roles, and the individual versus “the circle.” Chang has shown, in this, her fourth book, a versatility, an emotional and formal range, and a maturity that make it her most rewarding book yet.


Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize. Her web site is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter @webbish6. More from this author →