“Oh! You Beautiful Doll!”: Icon, Image, and Culture in Works by Alvarez, Cisneros, and Morrison
Trinna S. Frever University of Michigan, Flint

Oh! you beautiful doll, you great, big beautiful doll! Let me put my arms about you, I could never live without you. Oh! you beautiful doll You great, big beautiful doll! If you ever leave me how my heart will ache I want to hug you but I fear you’d break Oh, oh, oh, oh, Oh, you beautiful doll!1

The symbol system of this 1911 song is not overly complex. The doll represents the adult woman. The singer is the enamored male, correlating the desired female to the doll, and correlating himself to the ostensibly harmless child and its relationship with a doll. The song emphasizes two qualities in both doll and woman: beauty and fragility. The focus on outward appearance is obvious, with the word “beautiful” appearing five times in twelve lines. Fragility is more of an undertone throughout, made manifest in the line “I want to hug you but I fear you’d break.” This statement carries a tongue-in-cheek humor when one considers how real-life little girls play with their dolls. The dolls that are best loved are often the ones that are the most tattered from being dragged through mud, cuddled against one’s own skin, taken to bed, and, like the beloved Pooh Bear, dragged one-armed down the stairs with head clunking on each step.2 Yet these vaguely sweet childish references become more insidious when one considers the sexual context for the song. An actual woman being “broken” by love could denote a ruptured hymen, an emotional enslavement, or even a physical battering. The male speaker of the song is offering to treat the adult woman as a doll, fragile and beautiful at a distance, but worn and broken in the act of physical love. The implicit suggestion of damage, or even violence, to be enacted by the admiring male is certainly an uncomfortable subtext to the song, but nevertheless evident. The sexual message—and its potentially violent subtext—is heightened by the
Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 121-139. © University of Tulsa, 2009. All rights to reproduction in any form are reserved.

to the song “Oh! You Beautiful Doll. “Oh. and the woman-as-doll image replicated in a host of cultural texts sets up the doll as a site for gender representation controlled by forces other than the living woman herself. Board of Education court case. Yet the doll image is consumed.3 The uneasy tension between living adult female. The doll is. girlhood and womanhood—that circulate constantly through the popular culture in which they also participate. they contend with each of these forces as well as with the forces of race. It is often. attesting to the themes of gender subservience. I invoke the song “Oh! You Beautiful Doll” as a starting-point to discuss the doll as a site of gender and cultural negotiation in contemporary fiction. and sexual danger resonant throughout the lyrics. Hoffman’s “The Sandman.” in which a man falls in love with a life-size doll that he mistakes for a woman. in its most literal sense. oh. “Oh. This song provides a useful template for the cultural image of the doll that woman fiction authors must work with. though not exclusively. and was later used as evidence in the Brown v. The famous “Doll Study” by Kenneth and Mamie Clark used dolls in psychological and sociological research to investigate children’s internalization of racial difference and accompanying issues of identity and self-esteem.” to the 1955 film of the musical Guys and Dolls. all embodied in the figure of the doll. a narrative of harmless love turned potentially damaging. particularly by 1911 standards. in part. 28. an image of woman or girl. and reproduced by culture at large as well. and cultural imperialism. The importance of dolls as a site of identity intersection is demonstrated by scientific research on that subject.A. in everything from E.recurrence of the alinguistic sound word in the song. This covert-made-overt suggestion of doll-desire and actualized sexual fragility transforms the song-text into a kind of fractured fairy tale. actual doll as cultural artifact. oh. in bringing their own dolls into the world of representational play.5 I assert that women fiction writers who invoke the doll symbol revise the very social messages of dollness—and by association. and against.T. Spring 2009 . a representation of humanness made miniature.1. oh. socioeconomic class. children’s spontaneous responses to the doll experiment often addressed racial difference in terms of which doll was “pretty” compared to another doll.4 In this study. because highly gendered concepts of beauty and fragility are its obvious consumer currency. Its audience is presumably a young girl as the potential owner/consumer of the doll. reshaped.” is a lyric highly reminiscent of orgasm. When women authors of fiction enter this representational realm. So.” The repetition of four “Oh”s in succession in the eleventh line. female objectification. I also do so to demonstrate the layers of textual representation and rich interconnections created by placing a doll within fiction in juxtaposition with 122 TSWL. confirming the internalization of both racial and gendered social messages of beauty through the doll.

and perhaps of all time thus far. shake out the sawdust.7 Morrison confirms this interpretation in her 1993 “Afterword” to The Bluest Eye. 20).a wide range of cultural artifacts that contribute to the representational world. For breaking. pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. is Toni Morrison’s doll scene in The Bluest Eye. take off the head. shops. . to find the beauty. reframing. To see of what it was made. bend the flat feet.” shattering this image is exactly the goal of the contemporary woman writer. From the clucking sounds of adults I knew that the doll represented what they thought was my fondest wish. as represented in fiction. white. the loving gift was always a big. blue-eyed Baby Doll. newspapers. not only a script of motherhood pressed into her unwilling hands in the form of a baby doll whose “dimpled hands scratched” and whose lacey dress “irritated any embrace” (p. . functioning at once literally and metaphorically: I had only one desire: to dismember it. . The young narrator Claudia questions the gender and culture scripts embodied in the doll through an evocative passage. magazines. The “wish” is also an act of racial and cultural imperialism. 20-22) 123 . Morrison writes: “It had begun with Christmas and the gift of dolls. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye The most ground-breaking—and doll-breaking—image of the doll in woman-authored fiction of the twentieth century. While the singer of “Oh! You Beautiful Doll” “fears” that the dollwoman image will “break. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable. . Adults. in which she asserts that the “racial self-loathing” visible in The Bluest Eye’s girl characters (and in an actual girl from Morrison’s youth) stems from “the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. . In some cases. dominant United States culture. twist the head around . The big. so is breaking the doll itself. . as represented in doll. I could not love it. the desirability that had escaped me.”8 The doll encapsulates these “damaging” forces.”6 Morrison makes it clear through further description and through the careful juxtaposition of this passage with discussion of pop culture icons like Shirley Temple that the “fondest wish” enforced upon the young narrator is not only a gender script. burning. crack the back against the brass bed rail . to discover the dearness. older girls. window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed. loosen the hair. (pp. . yellow-haired. but apparently only me. Break off the tiny fingers. I destroyed white baby dolls. and reclaiming the image is exactly what permits the survival of the girl and the woman. and the damage done to the doll is one of the character’s and the narrative’s modes of resistance. a presumption of the beautiful that is part and parcel of an imperialistic. the special.

using the doll as a point of resistance against the internalized racial self-hatred that the Clarks observed in their work. The Bluest Eye is fairly steeped in song and cinema references from Shirley Temple to Imitation of Life. because Morrison’s depiction brings a new batch of cultural associations and ramifications to the image of the doll.10 The narrative reproduces the doll. each one setting forth a representation of white womanhood that must be overturned. Rather than trying to dismember a song. All are ultimately unraveled with the pull of a single thread. In turn. a writer whose work engages white American racial and cultural imperialism can be interpreted as enacting a response to Morrison. a counter-icon that both grapples with and enacts the doll symbol. This breaking open of the doll likewise opens the door for a range of subsequent literary and cultural depictions of identity and womanhood: complex. ambiguous. she attempts to reclaim a racial. like many dolls themselves. and it is its actual fragility—as contrasted with the girl’s own strength—that makes such an act possible. the narrative forms a complex representational and counter-representational web whereby each image is connected to each other image. Perhaps paradoxically. as well as a response to the doll image itself.” Morrison uses the image of beauty and fragility already resonant in popular culture to explode the doll’s iconographic power. Morrison’s doll decimation becomes a kind of iconographic representation unto itself. Writers who come after her may be read as responding to. and gendered identity that is separate from what the outside world. For it is the presumption of the doll’s beauty that compels Claudia to destroy it.Gone are the days of “I want to hug you. is 124 TSWL. moreover. 28. By destroying the icon. she attempts to recreate herself in an image that is un-iconic: her own. as fine as a doll’s yellow hair. not in isolation. shifting. as Christopher Douglas observes. Crucial to the doll scene is its juxtaposition with other popular cultural images of girls and women. but in her full cultural context of film and song. Spring 2009 . modifying. Thus. tells her it should be. Even when moving outside the cultural context of African Americanness. cultural. or a representation of African Americanness set forth in its stead. and/or elaborating on Morrison’s de(con)struction of the doll and all she represents. the doll image within the fiction acts as a pivotpoint through which all other cultural representations of womanhood are revised. powerful.1. Morrison’s Claudia destroys the image that is not made in her image. psychology and sociology.9 Morrison’s text also actively engages the previously mentioned “Doll Study” by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. in all its media manifestations. but I fear you’d break. The narrative points out in meticulous detail that what the doll represents is an encroachment on the cultural identity of a young African American girl. Morrison does indeed set the doll standard with this depiction. By cracking open the baby doll. and beautiful. This depiction.

replicates and complicates the already-contested role of the doll in culture. This inclusion of cultural critique within gendered commentary is seen by some as particularly indicative of Chicana writing. becomes “a way to negotiate inclusion—and exclusion—within several national imaginaries. representation.12 The doll. an important tool for revising scripts of race. Though Negrón-Muntaner addresses the Puerto Rican Barbie specifically.11 She writes: “Barbie play constitutes a privileged site to convey discontent and to negotiate conflicts in (and with) the United States.13 Curiel goes on to observe. The doll in fiction is a sort of representation-cubed (a representation of a representation of a representation) that interacts with and revises its surrounding cultural scripts even as it asserts its own gender and cultural argument. wherein “writers developed a distinctive feminist perspective that connected gender oppression with race and class oppressions. Phillips’s and her observations suggest the importance of recognizing any doll’s role in the play of signification and representation surrounding nation.14 Each layer of representation—doll.” as Barbara Brinson Curiel notes. two trends are visible. Barbie’s “plasticity” as a cultural signifier makes her. First. fiction. negotiation. I would argue that these implications of real-world doll play. race. the doll features prominently in works of the 1990s by Chicana and Latina writers. The doll becomes a potent means for expressing not only discontent but also ambiguity. 40). gender. particularly around race. class. not coincidentally through a feminized object that all aimed to control. and gender” (p. whether Barbie or otherwise. 58). the doll’s status as a “flexible” signifier in multiple realms may lend her a particular cultural function in fiction. The Doll’s Cultural Role in Contemporary Fiction In more recent depictions of the doll in woman-authored fiction. Indeed. and gender through fiction. “[c]onsciousness of the overlapping axes of race. the appearance of the doll in Morrison’s fiction. and socioeconomic class.inherited by the writers who follow. and her cohorts. class. Frances Negrón-Muntaner notes the importance of dolls as sites for this cultural negotiation in her analysis of the Puerto Rican Barbie doll and its reception. and more recently in Chicana and Latina fiction. ethnicity. and material culture are intensified when the doll is represented (or re-represented) in fiction. and culture. and gender became the foundation for feminists of color” (p. but also of race. making each subsequent interpretation representationally richer in its wealth of doll associations. doll in fiction—allows for greater representational play with gender and cultural ideologies. 125 . ambivalence. Indeed. culture. 39). (re)producing and modifying cultural ideologies of gender. and these depictions suggest that—as with Morrison—the doll in fiction functions as a tool for negotiating cultural forces as well as gendered scripts. In keeping with this pattern. but ultimately no one could quite pin down” (p.

and intertwining conflicts and triumphs of gender. and woman and doll. or dominant/subjugated culture. The layered representational power of doll-within-fiction resists the neat binaries of self/other. these fictions harness the doll to their own purposes. This trend is particularly notable in Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Barbie-Q” and Julia Alvarez’s novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. and gender. however. The cultural negotiation seen in Cisneros and Alvarez is less physically destructive. the doll becomes less an enemy to be destroyed than a force with which to reckon. delight and dismay. related trend is that the writers who follow Morrison chronologically use the doll image in increasingly ambiguous ways. Spring 2009 . and yet their depictions—like cultural contact itself—come to a hazy. 28. instead exploring the nuanced. class. uncertain resolution. multiplicitous. culture.and the ever-shifting middle grounds of gender and cultural identity.” two young girls from families with limited incomes get a wishcome-true when the burning down of a local toy warehouse makes stacks 126 TSWL. Each of these depictions—The Bluest Eye. tool of oppression and tool of power. though it also surfaces briefly in works like Christina Garcia’s “Tito’s Good-bye. This reclamation of the doll is never wholly removed from the tense ambiguity of the doll’s potential as a dangerous ambassador of race. When portrayed in this multivalent fashion. and yet there is a fictional awareness that the doll carries an ever-present danger through its association with “dominant” culture. and identity. in later works the doll is a more ambivalent site of comfort and discomfort. Sandra Cisneros’s “Barbie-Q” While The Bluest Eye’s young narrator receives her to-be-destroyed baby doll as an unwelcome Christmas gift. Whereas the doll in The Bluest Eye becomes the codified embodiment of the forces against which the narrator must battle.” and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents—details the ambiguity and ambivalence of gender and cultural identity made manifest in doll play.1. Perhaps it is this acknowledgement of ambiguity. “Barbie-Q. leaving us balancing between cultures and between representations. Thus a second. used for expression and not just oppression.”15 Rather than destroying dolls outright. in the Sandra Cisneros story “Barbie-Q. hovering in an uncertain ground between national and cultural boundaries. physically and metaphorically. The doll may be more fully embraced in these narratives. this detailed illustration of the minutiae of gender and cultural identity formation that makes the doll scene in contemporary women’s literature so compelling. reality and fiction. indicating the oppressive cultural dominance associated with the United States. They reclaim the doll for expression as well as confrontation.

pearl earrings” (p. 14). In these ways the writing style of the story reinforces. Though Cisneros’s writing style serves different ends in different works.of damaged Barbies suddenly available at bargain prices. (p. and heels included” and “‘Solo in the Spotlight. Here. and matching hat included. demonstrate the girls’ glee in their doll play: “Yours is the one with the mean eyes and a ponytail. The verbless streams of adjectives also allow each image to flow into the next in a gush of the protagonists’ excitement. white gloves. lace-trimmed slippers. but also. Red swimsuit. “Sweet Dreams. and their joy over sudden Barbie abundance pervades the story.’ evening elegance in black glitter strapless gown with a puffy skirt at the bottom like a mermaid tail. the doll suffers damage. This technique is seen again when the “new” Barbies are described: One with the “Career Gal” ensemble. While treacherous high heels could be taken as ready evidence of female oppression. and the colorful.” dreamy pink-and-white plaid nightgown and matching robe. the same use of descriptive adjectival listing appears: “‘Red Flair. The House on Mango Street holds a clear intertextual connection with “Barbie-Q” for its scene in which young 127 . Phrases including “bubble hair” and “like a mermaid’s tail” link the Barbie world to other sources of childhood fun. stilettos. Striped swimsuit. 14). when one reads the reference alongside Cisneros’s other work.’ sophisticated A-line coatdress with a Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat. pumps. 14). 14). landscape-like portrait of Barbieness. snappy black-and-white business suit. formal-length gloves. Nevertheless. sunglasses. listing. gloves. three-quarter-length sleeve jacket with kick-pleat skirt. and an unconventional absence or excess of conjunctions) not only capture the child voice. 15) Barbie holds a wealth of sensory appeal for these girls. thick descriptions carry this joy to the utmost level. the protagonists’ excitement over their dolls. True. handbag. by their very sensory abundance. The other. and one might speculate as to whether the incineration of the warehouse is an authorial act of burning Barbie in effigy. Cisneros presents the negative gender influence of the dolls through the appearance of swimsuits worn with “stilettos” and the doll’s confinement within “a wire stand” (p. red sleeveless shell. When the dolls’ “extra outfit[s]” are described. and prompts identification with. Mine is the one with bubble hair. the girl characters exhibit the polar opposite of the Barbie-destructive impulse. pink chiffon scarf” (p. such as blowing bubbles or playing make-believe (p. here her characteristic listing and rich adjectives evoke the girls’ joy in their play. the effect is even more pronounced. and gold hoop earrings. stilettos. But this joy is not unqualified. Cisneros’s characteristic flow-of-consciousness descriptions (long strings of adjectives. hair-brush and hand mirror included. creating an Impressionistic emphasis on colors and shapes that bleed one into the next in a lush.

here the joy of acquisition is bound inextricably to labor and the unattainable perfection that United States consumerism promises but fails to deliver. A variant on Cisneros’s listing style that also uses repetition appears when the two girl-protagonists of the story first see the smoky Barbies at 128 TSWL.” but this glee is limited and qualified by the fact that “our Barbies smell like smoke when you hold them up to your nose even after you wash and wash and wash them” (p. For just as the girls cannot acquire enough Barbies. 14). so the cycle of marketing-created desire and personal economic deficiency that is associated with capitalism itself has already begun. Just as the language of advertising and the language of childhood delight are difficult to separate within the narrative. “Cisneros cruelly contrasts the world promised by the American Dream with the reality surrounding the marginalized. and culture. the families depicted in the story are not. and also the rift between the economic class that the Barbie depicts and that of the girls who long to possess her.16 Through this intertextual connection. Cisneros’s writing style conveys a gender and cultural commentary. there is a childish rejoicing when the unattainable standard is momentarily attained by the purchase of many dolls—“Bendable Legs Barbie and Midge and Ken and Skipper and Tutti and Todd and Scooter and Ricky and Alan and Francie. or the best Barbies. Barbie becomes a symbol for a dangerous and unattainable standard not only in her representation of femaleness but in her representation of consumerism. As Romo puts it.” juxtaposes thrilling Barbie abundance with manual labor and the absence of material/economic perfection. The emphasis on the difficulties of poverty—“we don’t have money for a stupid-looking boy doll”—creates an economic class critique forming a sharp juxtaposition to the advertising language that the girls adopt to describe their Barbies (p. fiction. In Cisneros’s depiction.” Barbie does. while Cisneros’s descriptions may be rich. separated not by commas but by “and. The use of parallel lists.”17 While these girls have no occasion for “formal-length gloves. 16).” and still never quite achieve the standard of the store-bought doll. 28. Further. and as such the doll represents an economic class longing generated by the marketing industry. Thus.1. or the right Barbies to fill their consumer needs. Phrases like “formal-length gloves” and “sophisticated A-line coatdress” suggest both the degree to which the young protagonists have adopted the language of marketing as their own. Spring 2009 . the sinister potential behind the doll-image becomes glaringly clear and hearkens back to the implicit danger for girls and women who are correlated to “beautiful dolls” in song. adding a representational play on socioeconomic class into the bargain. Through this interconnected portrayal of doll-happiness and economic critique.girls experiment with wearing high heels and get an early lesson in sexual exploitation. “Midge and Ken and Skipper and Tutti” will undergo “wash and wash and wash.

20). and by extension denies them the life of promised abundance iconographically represented by Barbie herself. Here again. “Please. cannot be fully embraced. Oh. Some of the resonances from Morrison’s doll destruction echo throughout “Barbie-Q. please. As in The Bluest Eye the dolls are damaged. alongside this critique comes an adoring view of consumer culture as seen through the girls’ eyes. a doll without “a left foot that’s melted a little” (p.-dominated economic culture) arrives. the text cries out in their voices. The potential damage (other than to the doll itself) is to the desiring girls. please. We also once again see the close relationship between gender. please. and tension characterizing Cisneros’s portrayal of the doll. Cisneros’s descriptions carry a celebratory tone drastically different from Morrison’s. it. p. here Cisneros speaks quietly. who are caught up in a cycle of economic manipulation. 15). 15). Even though consumer desire is heightened in Cisneros’s story. we see simultaneous desire. Their desire is constructed by a world of marketing that denies them an undamaged doll. The coexistence of consumerist critique and consumer euphoria within the girls’ lives. class. until they say okay” (p. the emphasis in Cisneros’s story is on the doll’s consumer beauty and the likeness of her clothing to the descriptions from advertisements and fashion magazines. through the veil of child-glee presented by her narrator. please. 16). in tense opposition to the potential desire to identify with the girls’ happiness at limitless Barbie acquisition. please. joy. gender. the orgasmic “Oh. please.” however. Oh” of the sexually desiring male has been replaced by prepubescent. Morrison. “there! And there! And there! And there! and there! and there! and there!” (p. Upon first spying the dolls. wryly. as well as the potential danger from the desiring male.S. girlish consumer desire of “please.” Here.an open-air market “on Maxwell Street” (p. please. please. Oh. carrying a critique of class restrictions and an empathy for the working-class struggles of young girls who cannot yet control their economic circumstances. and cultural critique (Cisneros’s work frequently spells out a connection between being Chicana and being poor in a U. and their smoky smell hinders closeness as effectively as the “starched gauze” of the white dolls in The Bluest Eye (Cisneros. 15).” While the song emphasizes the beauty and fragility of the doll. Yet while the economic implications of the girls’ predicament are emphasized in a manner oft-seen in Cisneros’s work. and culture inherent in Cisneros’s critique. for the reader. Thus the economic. As the girls see more and more Barbies for sale. p. disappointment. the girls beg their parents. attests to the doll’s complexity as a site for reworking—or replaying—gender. While The Bluest Eye’s Claudia seems to speak directly for Morrison at times. 16. and within the text itself. and ultimately Cisneros portrays a more ambivalent love/hate relationship 129 . and cultural ideological scripts. This use of repetition is joyfully exclamatory yet eerily reminiscent of “Oh! You Beautiful Doll. economic class. like the doll herself.

28.1. In the introduction to the collection Latino/a Popular Culture. as in both Morrison and Cisneros. self/other. Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero write. the shift of the use in the doll in literature may represent a shift in interpretative approaches to pop culture at large. with the dinner serving as a welcome to the United States nation and culture(s). taking a kind of playful revenge on the dominant culture . this text “draws a family tree that serves to trace Yolanda and her sisters’ roots back to the conquistadors. Significantly. thus playing out the same dynamic in the outer world as in the literary works. we see the doll acting as cultural mediator for issues of age. a minor chord beneath the melody. Spring 2009 . Cisneros uses the doll’s role as oppressive imagemaker yet also claims the doll as a site of playful cultural renegotiation through her family “Barbie-Q. or a faint whiff of smoke in the aftermath of fire. and colonizer/colonized. In this sense. While the doll is the site of these cultural mechanisms. Nonetheless. and this fact is used to coax the girls into passive attendance and good behavior. the dialectical movement of appropriation and resistance. gender.with the consumer culture. the revenge is sweet. a newly emigrated Dr. ambiguous.”18 In keeping with this theory. nation. his wife.”19 130 TSWL. and for the young girl depicted. Maycock notes.” and so the girls’ young identity and cultural pride are rooted in all things “Spanish. demonstrating the doll’s potential as a conveyor of detailed cultural commentary and critique. it becomes a tool for claiming cultural pride. Alvarez’s depiction also articulates the ambivalent. the doll may represent a larger act of using pop culture to mediate other cultural forces. the Garcia family is taken to a Spanish restaurant. In Alvarez. and negotatiative middle grounds often left unspoken in dialogues of male/female. perhaps as a tense undertone rather than an explicit overtone. the core concept of the doll as perpetrator of the dominant culture’s ideology is retained. . The narrator explains the girls’ fascination with the “folk dancers from Madrid at the Dominican World’s Fair. “cultural politics played out in Latino popular culture provides an entree for understanding the double stake in popular culture. As critic Ellen C. and his four young daughters are taken to dinner by a prominent colleague and his wife. and power. the doll moves away from enforcer of the dominant ideology. ethnicity.” and thus establishes the strong link between the girls’ personal identity and their pride in a wide range of cultural trappings that they associate with Spanishness (p. In the pivotal doll episode from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. . it is also the negotiator of these forces in the scenes and societies that surround her. Yet as with Morrison and Cisneros. 170).” Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents In Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Garcia.

cultural. their play reestablishes their authority in the face of an intruding culture that would define them as derogatorily different. 170-71). the wife of the prominent doctor.This cultural pride begins to grow “[a]s Mami began to explain that this restaurant had shows of Spanish dancers as well as yummy Spanish food. a growing cultural identity emerges for the girls. kissing him in a semi-private alcove of the restaurant. Sandi’s pride is restored when she witnesses the restaurant’s floorshow. a prominent. intrudes twice on the Garcia family’s sense of autonomy and cultural pride. with a different set of players enacting similar roles. While in Cisneros the girls’ play is a marker of United States’ cultural imperialism in itself. She concludes that “Spanish was something other people paid to be around. The link between the child’s self-esteem and her perceived connection to all things Spanish is made explicit: 131 . in Alvarez their play becomes a mode to recreate personal and cultural identity. had come to a Spanish place for dinner” (p. particularly Sandi. 179). through the observation that “Americans” who “could have eaten anywhere . and economic status. though it is unclear whether she grasps its full implications in terms of socioeconomic power and cultural imperialism. . The first intrusion comes when a visibly drunk Mrs. Throughout the novel. . that the doll becomes the source of cultural strength and expression. Yet just as “La Bruja” downstairs intruded on the flamenco with her broom noise. Garcia. Fanning. yet who nonetheless holds social sway over her father through racial. But if Sandi’s pride is hurt at seeing her father made the sexual object of a woman who apparently lacks in morality and discretion.” until the downstairs neighbor interrupts their reverie by banging on the ceiling with a broom (p. white physician who has brought Dr. these “thumps” from the broom form a phonetic textual interruption that intrudes on the girls’ moments of cultural pride—like enacting flamenco dances and bullfights in their living room—just as the racist epithets from the same neighbor intrude on their attempts at a proud cultural identity within the United States (pp. 179). Fanning flirts ostentatiously with an embarrassed Dr. Garcia to the United States through his professional connections. The theme of growing pride and the disruption of such pride by the auditory or visual intrusion of a rude white woman is played out at the next level when the girls arrive at the Spanish restaurant. It is here.” and her self-worth swells accordingly (p. The doll becomes a positive mechanism for this play rather than strictly a symbol of the force to be defied. 170). Fanning. Mrs. As before. Sandi witnesses the kiss. wealthy. after a series of episodes fluctuating between cultural pride and personal/cultural degradation. Garcia appears powerless to refuse her advances because of his social and professional dependence on Dr. The girls perform their own perceptions of Spanishness. and just as with Morrison. Dr.

Through the doll. She thus flouts Mrs. glittery gown with a pretty tortoise shell comb in her hair. Sandi’s heart soared. in the form of a grotesque white woman who forces Sandi to confront the imbalances of power in her new nation. the new white “witch. Sandi feels a deep yearning for the doll as a restoration of her cultural pride. Garcia. her cultural identity. Spanish people. accessories. 185) This moment of cultural triumph is short-lived. A doll. Her power to wheedle the doll lies in her status as the only witness to the kiss between Mrs. 28. the equivalent of a Spanish Barbie that is carried from table to table for sale as a souvenir of the Spanish restaurant floorshow. I read this scene as Sandi’s cultural triumph over the new La Bruja. 188) As in Cisneros’s work. (p.The dancers clapped and strutted. The drunken Mrs. 186). Again. exhausted heap on the floor that made La Bruja beat her ceiling with a broom handle. but Sandi’s consumer longing is tied to. disquieting joy that sometimes made Sandi squeeze Fifi’s hand hard until she cried or bullfight Yoyo with a towel until both girls fell in a giggling. the dancer salesgirl showed the miniature castanets the doll was holding. not distanced from. . when she sees the doll: She was a perfect replica of the beautiful dancers. She takes a situation where her father lacks power and uses it to gain power over his manipulator. Sandi reasserts her own power.1. though even then the power is not wholly unqualified. Fanning when her own mother refuses because of its cost. as Mrs. and hairstyle. Fanning. Fanning even in the very act of her purported generosity. the scene could be read as depicting the girl’s complicity with an imperialist white culture. the girl’s cultural pride is undermined by a brash intrusion from white culture. Sandi’s claiming of the doll reasserts the Spanishness of the floorshow prior to Mrs. and also a surge of consumer pride akin to the “Barbie-Q” girls. claims back 132 TSWL. Fanning and Dr.” intrudes on Sandi’s self-spun Spanish fairy tale as surely as La Bruja and her broom. parodying their sexuality. from which cascaded a tiny. . lacy mantilla. Fanning’s intrusion. The doll is the source and symbol of this power: an image of cultural pride through its strong Spanish identification and a trophy of Sandi’s manipulation of her would-be oppressor. who danced the strange. Sandi feels a surge of cultural pride. Fanning jumps onstage with the dancers. however. On her feet were strapped tiny black heels such as the dancers had worn . dressed in a long. However. because she wheedles a doll from Mrs. Spring 2009 . True. the description places detailed emphasis on the doll’s attire. This wild and beautiful dance came from people like her. Because the doll emulates the dancers from the floorshow. and transforming the floorshow into a hideous burlesque that breaks “the spell of the wild and beautiful dancers” for young Sandi (p. tossing their heads boldly like horses. helps Sandi reclaim cultural power. (p.

the doll is decapitated and dismantled. concerns identified within 133 . baby. Sandi reasserts the power of her knowledge and parodies Mrs.” In each of these works. In Morrison’s novel. with a sound effect that is described in the text as making “a smacking sound” (p. Spanish ending through the appearance of the doll as a representation of her own self-wrought cultural identity and newly claimed power. allowing her to intervene and shift the balance of power in her own favor. Fanning for the doll. Just as the “thumps” of La Bruja’s broom permit her to disrupt the girls’ Spanish pride in their play and assert a racist cultural power. The doll’s representation of her culture in her own eyes is all the girl character needs to build her identity. babydoll. It echoes the socio-political climate of early 1970s America. however. a dancer-in-miniature becomes the symbol of Spanishness reasserted. reinscribing Mrs. the doll acts as the site of gender and cultural negotiation. Fanning’s social influence. Of course. The close of the scene further emphasizes triumph and the shift of the doll away from its dominant-culture associations in Morrison to its potential as a symbol of cultural pride in Alvarez. mimicking in child’s play the desired dismantling of United States institutions that perpetuate racism. Fanning’s wanton sexuality just as Mrs. For Cisneros. Sandi lifts the doll to Mrs. Fanning as a dirty joke in the margins of the tale rather than in the center she has so repeatedly sought. Fanning’s cheek for a mock-kiss. turning its own language and imagery against it. The doll has moved from enemy to ally and occupied ambivalent spaces between. again echoing concerns—in this case. Fanning in Spanish: “Gracias.” Sandi rewrites her fairy tale with her own happy. and restores the cultural balance at the table to its state prior to the cultural intrusions of the white “witch. The doll offers up a metaphoric and phonetic slap in the face to the white culture. Like the girls with the dolls in Cisneros. break. but is constant in its power as a site of gender and culture representation and negotiation. the semantic duality of “smack” in English—representing either a kiss or a slap in the face—is inescapable. burn” is transmuted into break. This kiss reminds Mrs. She sees herself in the doll and asserts herself through it. With the doll kiss. the doll is literally and figuratively burnt. Sandi does not mind that her doll may not be the neat representation she desires. or. in the restaurant the phonetic “smack” serves the same purpose reversed for Sandi. 191). Fanning parodied the sexuality of the dancers. Here. No wonder Sandi offers her semi-ironic thanks to Mrs.her father’s power. and bringing this group of texts full circle. through the doll’s plastic lips. restoring this particular textual moment to a place of ancestral and cultural pride. but in the end forecasts her potential social downfall at the hands of Sandi. When her mother instructs Sandi to thank Mrs. Fanning that she is subject to Sandi because of a kiss that attempted to assert Mrs. whereby “burn. more literally.

The doll resembles the multiple-narrator strategy in Alvarez’s work discussed by David T. becomes a play on play on play. rather than her specific Dominican descent. the girl herself builds a cultural identity using the doll as mechanism rather than defeating the doll as foe. and nation. the doll itself is whole. is both literal and figurative. race. the body of culture gone awry. We can thus see a kind of development of dollness in fiction. That embodiment. using representation to question. reveal an embrace of economic class privilege even as the larger narrative derides cultural discrimination? Does Alvarez’s depiction of Sandi embody what Mitchell terms “the shifting and multiple nature of post colonial identity itself” (p. “living” in the figure of the twisted Barbie. with her richly detailed lists and descriptions embodying both childlike consumer glee and the irony of that glee as set against economic class struggle in and around the United States. the joyous doll image carries the resonances of more conflicted cultural and gender issues. claim. the melted image of consumer perfection. culture. as a sort of Barbie in Spanish clothes. In this sense. and class identity as negotiated through the figure of the doll. Cisneros’s depiction. Mitchell. creating a narrative that “defines the immigrant subject as an uneasy hybrid product of conflicting social positions such as class. Spring 2009 . the doll serves a function similar to that served by the fiction. not broken or fragmented. Are the dancers themselves a parody of Spanish culture rather than an authentic representation of it? If so. or does Alvarez’s depiction reinforce the socioeconomic stratifications of the girls’ homeland even as it derides the cultural ones 134 TSWL. or a tense mix of personal cultural expression and exoticized otherness enforced through cross-cultural portrayals? Perhaps Sandi’s doll. in effect. Yet while the child narrator/protagonist herself has shifted from dollhatred to doll-joy. the narratives that portray her all reflect varying registers of ambivalence about gender.”20 There are many layers of cultural representation at stake in Alvarez’s doll scene. and rebuild. does the doll representing the dancers create a cultural reassertion of Sandi’s self-claimed “Spanish” identity. a blended representation of both United States dominance and attempted cultural specificity and expression. 168). 28. to what degree does Sandi’s identification with Spanishness in general.1. too. fragment. it is at the expense of her own mother’s authority and is still awarded to Sandi by the white woman. For Alvarez. challenge.the narrative as particularly Chicana—about the imperialism of white United States culture as played out through pop culture and through play itself. Further. If Sandi claims back identity through the doll. Even in Alvarez. may be a kind of Disneyland version of Spanishness. and is used as a reclamation of the very gender and cultural power of which dolls deprived their owners in the previous texts. whereby the representation of the representation becomes increasingly powerful for the child-character throughout the texts. gender. In Alvarez’s novel.

Perhaps the doll becomes an even fuller site of gender and culture negotiation in the process.” 135 .in their new country? While there are no foolproof answers to these questions. which necessarily complicate any depiction of “authentic” cultural identity apart from white United States-American influence (pp. identity.” By drawing out this complexity. 268-82). the relationships between the United States. Rather than reducing the girl-characters’ quests for a positive cultural identity into simple binaries of self/other or dominant culture/subjugated culture. and layers of cultural representation. The complicated web of cultural representations within this scene. Mexico and Africa) represent a “complex historical process” that in turn leads to “an identity layered with complexity and contradictions” for the writer that portrays it in fiction (pp. and Puerto Rico (and I might add for the purposes of this analysis. fears. ambiguities. negotiations. Thus even Sandi’s use of the doll to triumph over her individual oppressor reveals a web of new complications. and Morrison explore through their doll portrayals. though more embraced in Alvarez than elsewhere. I would argue that it is exactly this “complex historical process. Cuba. Rather. The doll itself. because the doll itself becomes a fully articulated embodiment of a wide range of cultural stances and ambiguities. 188). Cisneros. Bridget Kevane analyzes these very issues of culture and identity in the work of Alvarez and other “Latina Caribbean” writers. the fictional doll becomes the means to play out a vast range of joys. the Dominican Republic. 272). demonstrates the extreme complexity of cultural contact. The concept of “Latinanorteamericana” that Kevane advances acknowledges the longstanding influence of the United States upon other cultures.” and equally complex and ambiguous identity. including but not limited to the figure of the doll. rather than tying them off in an uncomplicated blue bow. or even a “pretty tortoise shell comb” (Alvarez. the narrative also demonstrates the potential for the doll to undo temptingly neat cultural categories and definitions. that Alvarez. powers. angers. and the elaborate interconnections thereof. p. their resonance within and around the text is important to the doll depiction. ambivalences.21 Kevane points out that cultural contact between the United States and other nations is neither a twentieth-century phenomenon nor always a wholly negative one. 271. nonetheless carries a tense mix of associations with white United States culture and its attempted power over the young girl’s representation of self. and the very definition of “culture. It also points to the simultaneous resistance and embrace of different aspects of this influence by the receiving cultures. revealing the complexity behind a symbol that could easily be dismissed as “child’s play.

Cisneros’s. the authors enact a power similar to Sandi’s in Alvarez’s novel.1. Each author draws upon the doll as a symbol immersed in gendered cultural meaning. or pirouette this association on its melted foot. Further. embraceable doll. and the individual perspectives of their writers. . creating a wealth of alternative depictions and strategies that speak to the potential for reformation and re-creation through fiction and in culture. 28. rather than as an outside culture would make her. each writer draws upon the doll to reassert an authorial power that is as gendered and culturally specific as the doll herself. and each takes a different approach to the representation of the doll. Whether those ends be the end of the doll through fracture and fire. While perhaps none of these authors fully articulates the new. Each responds to the prior cultural associations of doll with femaleness. and to articulate the complex interactions of these entities in both individual identity and the larger cultural sphere. these doll-narratives inscribe a longing of the girl character. racial. these authors create another type of doll-desire. these works reassert the woman/doll connection established by pop culture artifacts like “Oh! You Beautiful Doll!” but turn this association on its head . woman author. beauty. In this process. . socioeconomic. and/or woman reader for an image that is more fully made in her own image. and each turns these depictions to her own fictional ends. nationalistic). Perhaps paradoxically. these authors wrest back the doll image from external control. or the rebuilding of doll and identity as one. the fictional depiction achieves what the doll alone cannot: a figuration of the complexities of cultural womanhood in the representational realm. In effect. Instead. Spring 2009 . and Morrison’s texts stem from different time periods. I argue that there is a collectivity to their response to the doll image in culture and to the incorporation (or decorporation) of the doll in fiction. a way to resist binary constructions of gender. They use it to suggest the power of girls and women to resist cultural expectations (gendered. each author demonstrates the doll’s potential in the fictional realm as a site of complexity. Instead of diminishing. and to form their own relationship—conten136 TSWL. and culture. By playing with the image of the doll through the fictional form. reducing. to claim their own identity. each narrative explores a process of renegotiation and reclamation through the girl character’s interaction with the doll. claiming what might otherwise be a symbol of oppression as a tool for critique and redefinition of gender and cultural identity. class. then. cultural contexts. in pronounced contrast to the dangerous sexual power of the desiring male in pop culture or to the rampant consumer desire that the texts may themselves reveal.Refiguring Doll Desire Though Alvarez’s. and confining women in narrow definition as fragile sexualized playthings through their equation with doll-ness. and fragility.

You Beautiful Doll. each creating a cultural vision. A. Composer. Lyricist.ihas. within her own power. it is this relationship between woman and pop culture artifact with which each of these fictions contends. a conception of identity. and like the woman herself—is a rich source of cultural information. While Morrison and Cisneros.gov/diglib/ihas/loc. the doll—like the fiction. these works of literature collectively demonstrate the vast strategies available for criticizing and indeed overturning the forces that threaten to “break” the girls and women represented in text. and rampant consumerism of the United States culture that created her. Remick and Co. “Oh. Jerome H. and Dance. The doll (as artifact of popular culture) is revealed as a tool of dominant cultural ideology but also as a tool for the unraveling of this ideology and for the reassertion of new cultural values in its stead. and creation. Collectively. like the girl character. Both the distinctiveness in response and the emphasis on shared concerns through the prevalence of the doll image speak to the importance of the doll’s renegotiation in literary works by women of color. p. 1911. and a literary text that is simultaneously transnational. transcultural. Through the range of responses to cultural forces. and thoroughly her oh-oh-own. embracing—with the cultural artifacts that surround them. individually and collectively. all criticize the doll as a manifestation of the racial bias. each also demonstrates that the individual’s reaction to that culture is. The fact that each of these authors uses the doll to a similar end in a starkly different fashion speaks to the multivalency of the doll as representational form. ambivalent. Far from being a simple plaything. to a degree. gender oppression. as well as to the complex network of sociopolitical relationships embodied in both the doll and the fiction. 1961). 1 137 . These authors. critique.loc. natlib. cultural imperialism. these authors re-write the doll as a cultural site of power relations. Ultimately.. New York: E. Though Christopher Robin is male. and it is through exploration of doll-as-woman. rpt. Theater. NOTES Excerpted from Nat D. and to a lesser extent Alvarez. http://lcweb2. Milne. 3. his treatment of the Pooh Bear nonetheless models the premise that damage to toys may indicate affection rather than its opposite.tious. Dutton.html(accessed 3 August 2007).. and Seymour Brown. 2 A. negotiative. P. and doll-in-fiction that each of these authors asserts the body of her critique.” New York.100004221/default. The Library of Congress Presents: Music. and the relationship with stuffed animals is not symbolically synonymous with the girl and her doll. Ayer. articulate the complex specificities between the cracks of competing ideologies by means of the doll. woman-in-fiction. Winnie-the-Pooh (1926.

Guys and Dolls. 9 See again Dickerson. Phillips’s analysis in “Textual Strategies. cultural identity. 10 See again Douglas. race. Phyllis R. 1947). 78. dir. and popular culture. “Racial Identification. “Girls into Women: Culture. 19. 347. Race. 4 (1979). 178. 1998).” p.” American Literature. “Dick-and-Jane Sensibility in The Bluest Eye. and Werrlein. 4 Christopher Douglas discusses the probable influence of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s research on both the Brown v. Klotman. “Barbie’s Hair: Selling Out Puerto Rican Identity in the Global Market. CT: Greenwood. Plastic Tactics: Reading Batman and Barbie. 3 (1950). 53-72. 38-60. 169-78.L. see Kenneth B. Spring 2009 . Joseph L.” Journal of Material Culture. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text. and consumerist contextual associations.A. T. 12 In referring to Barbie’s “plasticity. Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. No. Leonard J. 4 (2005). 6 Toni Morrison. Board of Education case and on The Bluest Eye in his essay “What The Bluest Eye Knows about Them: Culture.” in Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender. Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero (New York: New York University Press. For a teaching-centered discussion.” p. See. pp. and Debra T.” The Bluest Eye (New York: Alfred A. 1972). Knopf. pp. Waxman.1.” Black American Literature Forum. Dickerson (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. see Barbara Frey Waxman. 13. 1955. Werrlein. pp. MGM Studios. For results of the Clark doll study.” Tales of E. ed. 1972). Identity. Dickerson. Klotman. 123-125. 2002). “Afterword. 2 (2002). Silber (Westport. Pocket Books Edition (New York: Washington Square Press. 123-36. Classroom approaches to The Bluest Eye also frequently address gender.T. ed. Clark and Clark. e.” MELUS. Rather. 47-49. 28. “Summoning SomeBody: The Flesh Made Word in Toni Morrison’s Fiction.” in Readings in Social Psychology. The Bluest Eye.” in Latino/a Popular Culture. For a related study called “the Coloring test. 195-216. Hartley (New York: Henry Holt and Company. 210.” see Clark and Clark. ed. “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. racial. Hoffman. Newcomb and E. Clark and Clark. “The Sandman. 8 Morrison. 2003). “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. “Emotional Factors” and “Racial Identification. 7. 141-68. p.A. and trans. Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in The Bluest Eye.” 11 Frances Negrón-Muntaner. pp.g. Knight (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. and national identity—and their connections to popular culture—is well documented in criticism on The Bluest Eye. No. and Self-Loathing in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Hoffman. pp. gender. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Clark. M. 30. “Emotional Factors. 1 (2006). 7 Morrison’s complex depiction of the nuances of race. I disagree that Barbie can ever be fully wrested from her gender. ed.T. Mankiewicz. No. Vanessa D. 341-50. No. No. 2001). Though I find compelling Phillips’s suggestion that Barbie provides an endless stream of shifting significations through material play..” in Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women. “Not So Fast. Clark and Mamie P. 19-20. Kent and Elizabeth C. 5 Clark and Clark. Nature. culture.” I am drawing on Kendall R. I see Barbie as an 3 138 TSWL.” The Journal of Negro Education.E. ed.

” Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Vintage Books. I see its presentation as meaningfully ambivalent in its simultaneous portrayal of girlhood joy as contrasted with a harsher economic reality. “Introduction. 18 Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero. 268-82. 20 David T. 75-80. and Rosario Ferré. 1992).S. 131-32. “subversive or hegemonic. 139 .” Latino/a Popular Culture (New York and London: New York University Press. 24 (2005). How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (New York: Plume/ Penguin Books. 1992). female helplessness. “Barbie-Q. 17 (2001). Quintana (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. “Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. pp. 223. “The Bicultural Construction of Self in Cisneros. Timothy B. 127) in her essay “Sandra Cisneros’ ‘Barbie-Q’: A Subversive or Hegemonic Popular Text?” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. 13 Barbara Brinson Curiel. but the very binary opposition of her title.” suggests an unnecessarily oppositional interpretive framework. 1991). 58. Mitchell. “The Accent of ‘Loss’: Cultural Crossings as Context in Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” in Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction. p. 6. 1999). Though the association Maycock identifies has potentially imperialist overtones of its own. Subsequent references to Alvarez and Cisneros will be cited parenthetically in the text. fashionable. 2002). Alvarez.” in Reading U. p. I find that she falls into a common trap among theorists working on “Barbie-Q” in trying to identify Cisneros’s stance as “anti-hegemonic” despite a number of counter-tensions in the story.implicit reinforcer of whiteness. 14-16. Latina Writers: Remapping American Literature.” in Beyond the Binary: Reconstructing Cultural Identity in a Multicultural Context. heterosexual. ed. pp. 127-37. “Tito’s Good-bye. “the true and only Barbie that always comes to mind is white. Negrón-Muntaner advances this concept that Barbie is “‘essentially’ white” and hyper-feminized.. 23. pp. 14 For more on Barbie’s “plasticity” as a signifier. and Santiago. even though such characteristics are made malleable by children’s play. Christina Garcia. 42). p.” including her discussion of the story’s title and her interpretation of socioeconomic critique in the story. 3 (1998). Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text. ed. 2003). ed. Though I agree with much in Romo’s analysis of “Barbie-Q. pp.” The House on Mango Street (New York: Vintage Books. 17 Romo. p. 1992). 16 Cisneros. Powell (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 39-42. Rather than force the story into an ideological binary. and stereotypical female beauty.” Monographic Review. Delia Poey and Virgil Suarez (New York: HarperPerennial. Instead—perhaps problematically—they focus on the strength of a culturally “Spanish” identity that serves as an important tool for survival within their new environment. No. 21 Bridget Kevane. see Phillips. Sandra Cisneros. Christina García. eds. blondeness. 19 Ellen C. even when manifested in culturally specific ways (p. 133.” The Bilingual Review. Alvina E. not poor. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text. Romo does acknowledge that interpretation is dependent on the reader. 15 Julia Alvarez. 182. and forever young” (p. “The Family of Little Feet. “Latinanorteamaericana: Cultural Identity and the Latina Caribbean Novel as Seen by Julia Alvarez. Maycock. physically appealing. popular. the girl characters are as yet unaware of this class-based component of their Dominican cultural pride. Leticia Romo also writes.