Andy Warhol’s silkscreens and Pop Art in general are subjected to two dominant readings, a simulacral and a referential. The first, advocated by Roland Barthes, is that the world of Warhol is nothing but image, that Pop images in general represent only other images: ‘the Pop artist does not stand behind his work, and he himself has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures: no signified, no intention, anywhere’ (Barthes). Conversely, the second reading connects his images to real events in the world. Critics such as Thomas Crow, for example, see meaning behind his work and tie it to different themes.
A similar argument can be applied to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, the dominant reading of the film is that its subject is interiority, about looking beyond appearances. The phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, for example, appears frequently in reviews of the film. However, like the Warhol simulacral/referential argument, Edward Scissorhands can equally be read as a story of surfaces rather than what lies beneath them in that the film can be taken as a narrative of consumer culture with a product in place of a protagonist.
Edward Scissorhands is set in 1950s American suburbia, an age of mass consumerism. The film even opens with an advertisement as Peg Boggs, an Avon representative, attempts to sell cosmetics to her neighbours. When her efforts fail, she notices an old mansion atop a hill. Thinking she has found an opportunity to make a sale, she enters and climbs the stairs to a dark attic. There she meets Edward, a part mechanical man with scissors in place of hands. In an act of kindness, she offers to take him home and his domestic skills soon become apparent to her and neighbours. They begin to ‘borrow’ Edward and he becomes a kind of human appliance as they employ his abilities to cut hedges and hair, groom dogs, make ice sculptures and chop vegetables for local barbeques. Consumerism has become so excessive that the human has literally become a commodity. Edward becomes ‘the new thing’ everyone is talking about, similar to that of the latest kitchen appliance or hair dryer everyone enthuses about upon its release. However, new products inevitably malfunction or get superseded by a superior model and Edward too becomes outdated with the neighbourhood tiring of him when he is framed for a local robbery, i.e., when he stops functioning in the way they, the consumers, expect him to. They gradually turn on him and chase him out of the estate. As a result, Edward returns to his dark attic in the mansion and the film ends with him incessantly making ice sculptures. This final scene can be read as putting an outmoded product back into storage.
Therefore, while most readings of Burton’s film will emphasise interiority, like Warhol’s silkscreens, it can be simultaneously read as pure surface.
Here is the scene where the inventor dies before finishing his product/creation. It takes place in a factory and highlights how Edward is literally constructed by a manufacturer:
Similar to Edward Scissorhands is Disney’s WALL-E, the story of the obsolete robot that continued to work long after humanity had abandoned the earth. Here is a link to an essay that discusses the film in relation to consumerism and the environment:
This is an article that explores consumerism and the 1950s in other Burton films:
Another brief article that looks at consumerism and the setting of Edward Scissorhands:
Also, this is a review and breakdown of Edward Scissorhands. Of particular interest are its remarks about the bland setting of the film, its highlighting of the character Bill’s essentially empty remarks on consumerism and the film’s relation to celebrity culture:
Barthes, Roland. ‘That Old Thing, Art…’ Post-Pop Art. Ed. Paul Taylor. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. Print.
Crow, Thomas., ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol.’ Ed. Thomas Crow. Modern Art in the Common Culture. London: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.
Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.
Fenton, Rosalyn. ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ Scribd, 10 Nov. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015. Web.
WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Pixar Animation Studios, 2008. Film.