Sandra Cisneros

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In "Barbie-Q," what is the story theme?

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In Sandra Cisneros’s lovely short story “Barbie-Q,” themes of poverty and desire are discussed, as referenced by a couple of the other answers. Another theme Cisneros toys with is the ideal of womanhood in modern society. Barbie dolls are held to be flawless (even unachievable) ideals of feminine beauty. The toys have changed with the times: Barbie has shifted from the classic housewife to a career woman of many different sorts. However, she is always packaged in her improbable “body.” The two girls in this short story view Barbie with the same reverence as many young woman who play with dolls, but Cisneros goes out of her way to display that the dolls themselves—and the ways the girls talk about them—are flawed.

First, there are the literal flaws. The dolls the girls find at the end of the story are made affordable because “a big toy warehouse… burned down yesterday.” These paragons of femininity are born out of tragedy, which might be Cisneros claiming that most women, no matter how pristine they seem on the outside, have a shared experience of trauma from simply being a woman in society. It is not by mistake that the narrator’s original Barbie is flawed—“the black glitter wears off where her titties stick out”—and that the story ends with a warning not to peek under the new Barbie’s dress. There is also the way the girls play with their Barbies, which always centers around tales of infidelity involving an imaginary and therefore idealized “Ken” male doll. Cisneros seems to be saying that even for the young woman playing with them, society has warped femininity to such an extreme that their dolls are viewed mostly through sexualized terms and as women who do not support but hinder one another.

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A few common clichés say that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or "One man's trash is another's man's treasure." Another way of stating this might be to say that the value of an object may vary with differing people, and that this might also be based on the life circumstances of the person.

Esperanza and her sister each have a Barbie doll, but because their family lives in poverty, they can only afford two outfits for each doll. They make another off-the-shoulder outfit with a sock, but these two girls are just elated to have the latest toy. When they are playing with their Barbie dolls, they pretend that they are going out on dates with a fake Ken, because they cannot afford to buy a boy doll. But the girls don't care; they're enjoying playing with each other and with their dolls.

Then, one Sunday, they are visiting the flea market on Maxwell Street and they come across a coveted prize among the junk. In brand-new boxes they find "Bendable Legs Barbie," Midge (Barbie's best friend), Ken, Skipper (Barbie's little sister), Tutti and Todd ("Barbie and Skipper's tiny twin sister and brother"), and Francie ("Barbie's MOD'ern cousin"). They are at a price that Esperanza's family can afford, and she begs and pleads with her parents until they buy these dolls.

What's the catch? A big toy warehouse on Halsted Street burned down, and so they're trying to get rid of the smoke-filled toys at any price. How do Esperanza and her sister feel about these smoky-smelling toys? Esperanza says,

So what if we didn't get our new Bendable Legs Barbie and Midge and Ken and Skipper and Tutti and Todd and Scooter and Ricky and Alan and Francie in nice clean boxes and had to buy them on Maxwell Street, all water-soaked and sooty. So what if our Barbies smell like smoke when you hold them up to your nose even after you wash and wash and wash them. And if the prettiest doll, Barbie's MOD'ern cousin Francie with real eyelashes, eyelash brush included, has a left foot that’s melted a little—so?

Why do they feel this way? Because they have so few toys. They are excited to have something new, and they are excited to receive multiple toys still in the box. That rarely happens in their lives. Would someone whose parents had unlimited money feel this way? Probably not, because they are accustomed to new things, gifts, and privilege.

Therefore, the value of the item depends on the perspective of the owner; it's dependent on that person's history and life story.

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One theme in the short story “Barbie-Q” by Sandra Cisneros is that of poverty. The two girls in the story have to make do with “the mean-eyed Barbie and the bubble hair Barbie and the one outfit apiece” because they cannot afford to buy other toys. When a “big toy warehouse” burns down on Halsted Street, the girls are finally able to buy other toys at the flea market on Maxwell Street. However, the toys are in a sorry state; all of them smell of smoke, and all of them have been spoilt by the water. In spite of the poor state of the toys, the girls are totally happy that they finally have other toys to play with.

Another theme presented is beauty and what it might mean to different groups of people. For the girls, beauty is more than the external appearance of a person. It runs deeper than what is to be seen on the surface. Notice that the girl who is narrating the story describes the Barbies using their outfits. She says, “Mine is the one with the bubble hair. Red swimsuit, stilettos, pearl earrings, and a wire stand.” Her friend’s Barbie has a “stripped swimsuit, stilettos, sunglasses and gold hoop earrings.” These outfits refer to the societal definition of classy and beautiful women. In fact, the girls even make a dress out of an old sock to copy “a glamorous, fancy-free, off-the-shoulder look” of the day. However, even as they acknowledge the beauty that lies in fashionable outfits, they are also aware of the fact that beautiful things often have imperfections. They embrace their Barbies with their imperfections—the burnt foot and the smoky scent.

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