Table of Contents
Marge Piercy’s poem “Barbie Doll” addresses the unreasonable and ridiculous demands made of young girls. Second-wave feminism was prevalent when “Barbie Doll” was composed and released. The speaker discusses the emotions that feminism was and is still battling against throughout the poem. She uses the narrative of a “girlchild” to talk about gender roles and gender stereotypes. The poem tells the tale of a young woman’s life and death through a series of bizarre and unsettling imagery.
About The Poet
Marge Piercy was born into a working-class household in Detroit, Michigan, in March of 1936. Piercy was the first member of her immediate family to attend college when she was a young woman, and she studied at the University of Michigan. She graduated with an MA from Northwestern University, and during the 1960s, she worked as a political movement organizer. She supported the Students for a Democratic Society as well as several organizations dedicated to feminism, environmental protection, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
Theme Of The Poem
Individual lives have always been under the authority of society, and this is more evident for women. Women are given social expectations regarding how to act, dress, and eat in order to fit in. Little girls are expected to grow up to be ideal feminine beauties who subsequently master the skills of cooking and ironing. Unlike a doll, Barbie Doll emphasizes these social roles. All other girls are embodied by the doll in the poem. It helps us recognize that every lady has experienced being rejected or treated unfairly at some point in her life.
This girlchild was born as usual and presented dolls that did pee-pee and miniature GE stoves and irons and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy. Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said: You have a great big nose and fat legs.
The beginning of a girl’s life is where the poem “Barbie Doll” starts. The speaker claims that this baby, referred to as a “girlchild,” was born “as usual.” The gender specific toys that were given to her are designed to teach this child how to be a lady and a parent. She is provided with these objects at an early age as if it were entirely normal for a young child to spend time caring for an imagined future family and pretending to change a baby’s diaper. The speaker goes on to mention more items that a small girl picks up along the way. “Wee lipsticks” in the shade of “cherry candy” are handed to her. They are “wee” because they are designed for small hands and lips, and they are “cherry” red to correspond with the makeup she’ll probably wear when she’s older. She was told by a student that she had chubby legs and a huge nose.
She was instructed to behave in a way that was proper for her gender and given toys that are often given to girls.
She was healthy, tested intelligent, possessed strong arms and back, abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity. She went to and fro apologizing. Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
She was a smart, physically strong girl with broad shoulders and a broad back. She also had a lot of sexual enthusiasm and manual dexterity. She was apologizing all the while. Her large nose and thick legs were visible to all. The enthusiasm in these words changes to self-hatred in the final two lines. Unlike the speaker, the young woman is unable to view herself positively. She struggles with anxiety about her appearance and other people’s perceptions of her. She makes an effort to “apologize.”
She was advised to play coy, exhorted to come on hearty, exercise, diet, smile and wheedle. Her good nature wore out like a fan belt. So she cut off her nose and her legs and offered them up.
Barbie Doll’s second half starts with a description of the directions she received for how to behave. She should always be both “coy” and “hearty.” Exercise, a healthy diet, smiles, and wheedling should be the focus of her life. She ought to be lovable in every manner while still being pleasant. Unfortunately, she has become weary of her good nature as she has matured. She is no longer the good-natured youngster and child she once was. She has been humbled by the world to meet their standards.
The woman finally cuts, seemingly caving in to the taunts and torture imposed upon her.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on, a turned-up putty nose, dressed in a pink and white nightie. Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said. Consummation at last. To every woman a happy ending.
The funeral scene opens the fourth verse. It is soon apparent that the woman has passed away. She is lying in a “casket,” which is placed on “satin,” as though indulging in one final act of beauty. She has had her face touched up, “cosmetics” painted on, and a “turned-up putty nose” made for her by the “undertaker.” She now has the face she was designed to have. She has also been dressed well. All eyes are on her since she is wearing a “pink and white nightie,” and they all agree that she is finally “beautiful.” In the final two sentences, the speaker claims that, by social norms, the woman has achieved her goals. She now gets the “happy ending.”