On Looking: Barbie Chang and Victoria Chang’s Poetics of Female Spectacle

Lia Purpura once noted that “each thing’s its own partner, each always both, depending on where you stand.” Indeed, we all glance at ourselves and imagine what the other sees; a thousand possible selves surface. The other’s gaze becomes a constant presence within the self, a character in the stories we tell one another and ourselves. Though this imagining might appear to some as an exercise in empathy, it usually replicates the limited, existing ideas that populate our media, rather than imagining our own. As Slavoj Žižek notes, these texts “don’t give you what you desire — they tell you how to desire.” Victoria Chang’s new collection, Barbie Chang, reveals, visibly and poignantly, the ways that “looking” can be symptomatic of what is most broken and dangerous in our culture.

For Chang, tacit beliefs about race, class, and gender reside just beneath the surface of the gaze, dictating the power structures implicit in our looking and the inevitable imbalance of agency and visibility. Chang elaborates on her subjectivity in an interview for The Rumpus: “I think being a poet, period, is isolating, because it’s so marginalized in our culture. On top of that, I’m a female poet, which is another sub-segment of an already-marginalized art. And I’m an Asian American female poet, which is even more marginalized.” In Barbie Chang, what Chang describes as “marginalized” is wedded to perhaps the most recognizable standard of beauty, femininity, and visibility. Which is not to say that Barbie is marginalized for her appearance, but rather, the opposite. She occupies a position of privilege and enjoys the luxury of legibility in the eyes of the predominant culture. It is this privilege that Chang undermines, interrogates, and defamiliarizes.

Indeed, this tension — between looking as we remember it and as Chang presents it — is what drives the collection. As the sequence unfolds, Chang suggests that we are the very things people see us as, inevitably, because they are internalized. But we are also defined by our resistance to the archetypes that circulate around us (and within us). She considers the problem of the split subject, the divided self, through both narrative and subtler stylistic choices. Filled with enjambments that enact violence on language and syntax, and rife with cavernous silences, Barbie Chang renders us suddenly — startlingly — aware of the warring multiplicity housed within each one of us. “I want to change the ending,” she writes, “before this begins.”

As a cultural symbol, Barbie represents the ways intellectual activity is coded as masculine, and a vacuous mind as inherently ladylike, a standard against which the speaker constantly measures herself. Play becomes prescriptive, sparking the speaker’s awareness of her own looks and their seeming incongruity with a rich and ever-shifting inner life. At the same time, Chang bravely and provocatively acknowledges the pleasures of this particular definition of femininity: “Barbie Chang can’t stop watching / the Ellen Pao trial // while the rest of the world wonders / about a plane crash…” For Chang, vacuous femininity has its allure, as the speaker relishes the drama of the televised trial. The testimony describes “Pao falling in love with a man in the office,” rather than the rich social, political, and historical implications of her demand for equal pay. As we transition from line to line, this kind of escape seems all the more appealing. In light of the book’s provocative exploration of race, this passage evokes the simultaneous attraction and terror of internalizing a Westernized standard of beauty. For the speaker of this poem, conformity is a necessary pre-requisite to gain power and legibility, but also a pathway to something potentially destructive. In poem after poem, we are presented with a speaker who challenges complicity and engages her humanness. She finds herself “forever frozen in her own form like / a stamp.”

In many ways, the poem’s formal consistency amplifies — and reflects on — this tension. Presented almost entirely in couplets, one might argue that Chang has chosen to present a feminist critique of spectatorship in a form that represents a male tradition. Yet such a reading overlooks the uneasy music of the poems, their sonic trepidation, a powerful commentary on the poems’ chosen form. Chang writes, “There are lungs in Barbie Chang’s / dreams and jeeps in her / lungs the lungs are hard and almost / dead the jeep no longer / runs…” Here her lineation exists in tension with the sentence, the clause, or any familiar unit of syntactic meaning.

These ruptures and aptly timed schisms serve to convey the speaker’s sense of dread, an anxiety that renders it difficult to breathe and speak. One might read this angst as the voice’s reaction to being placed in a form in which it fits uneasily, a cadence that is uncomfortable in its own adornments and unnecessary ornamentations. This visible unease represents a sharp contrast with the earlier “Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching,” with more natural pauses that punctuate the speaker’s narrative of spectatorship: “…men like to take off their clothes / extend their tongues…” Here, we are presented with lineation that mirrors the rhythms of speaking. It is a voice at ease within the language that it inhabits. Chang shows us, through form, that the other’s gaze offers both pleasures and perils, both of which preoccupy the speaker of these meaningfully crafted poems.

The book is filled with poems like this, in which the author’s deft stylistic maneuvers complicate and question the form, narrative, and artistic tradition from which the work arises. “Barbie Chang hates the status quo,” the poet explains, her commitment to social justice shining through each line break, each fractured syntactic unit. She shows us that the other’s gaze is internalized, perhaps most visibly in the way we inhabit language. After all, these limiting ideas of what beauty, identity, and desire can be are manifest even in the rules that govern our words, as seemingly innocuous and necessary as they may be.

Barbie Chang startles us into awareness. Chang’s star is rising, and lucky for us, she writes with compassion, grace, and a true ethical sensibility. When read in light of her previous collections, Circle, winner of the 2005 Crab Orchard First Book Award, Salvinia Molesta, published in 2009 by the University of Georgia Press, and The Boss, released by McSweeney’s Books in 2013, this new volume represents Chang’s finest achievement, and her most enlivening work yet. This is not to say that her other work is lacking, but that here, she pushes her unique line of inquiry — which examines questions of otherness, marginalization, and identity — even farther, pursuing these questions with greater boldness and resolve. Rather than affording the reader the luxury of a passive role, which the autobiographical lyric strophes of Circle lend themselves to, she holds a mirror to the other, forcing them to look, and to examine their own victimization and complicity. This interrogation of the reader begins with the jarring defamiliarization of the title and continues through each miniature narrative, each enjambment, and each subtle allusion. This is a book that contains the world.