“Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy The poem “Barbie Doll’ by Marge Piercy dramatizes the conflict between stereotyping and perfection within society. The title accentuates the theme of the poem; the Doll symbolizes society’s interpretation of beauty and a reflection of how the girl’s ideas of this beauty shape her self-worth. According to Steven Ratiner, author of Giving Their World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, it is Piercy’s realistic interpretations of life experience which develops the theme of her poetry: “… her poems contain visions of a woman’s struggle to take responsibility for her own life… By comparing the young lady in the poem to a Barbie doll, the author reveals the irony of the title. The societies within America usually describe someone as beautiful if they are thin and have the perfect body, such as a Barbie Doll. Throughout the poem, the girl is presented as a passive figure that is continually put down by a society obsessed with set standards of perfection. The speaker is aware of the events taking place in the young girl’s life, just maybe somebody who knows her or a person observing her from the sidelines.
However, the speaker is not aware of her feelings about what is happening. The poem is written in an open form much like a Barbie storybook or movie, by using similes, symbols, and a fairy tale-like tone, Piercy creates a story starring a suicidal young girl instead of a Barbie, the glamorous sex symbol the girl is compared to throughout the poem. Each of the four stanzas shows the different stages of the girl’s life, and how the influence of peer pressure and stereotypes destroy her. The opening stanza describes how according to society any “girl-child” spends her childhood.
It sets the tone with a happy beginning and a positive attitude. She is presented with “dolls that did pee-pee” (2), “miniature GE stoves and irons,” as well as “wee lipsticks” (3-4). These items are not only gifts that a young girl would like to have but are also things that are considered feminine; they symbolize the gender role that a young girl possesses very early in life. The dolls represent motherhood, GE stoves characterize a housewife, while the lipsticks signify a glamorous woman that still has to look good for her man and just be perfect in every way.
According to society, all girls are expected to be a certain way and enjoy activities thought to be feminine, just like a Barbie doll. As the poem continues the first stanza takes a negative turn, the speaker uses the word “magic” to describe puberty, the age where appearance comes into effect. It’s ironic that this particular word is used because puberty is actually a turning point for every young girl, where her body is changing and she compares her image of herself to what she sees around her and what she has seen in her past, including Barbie the representation of a real woman that she played with in her imaginary world as a child.
This is the time when a classmate makes negative remarks about her looks: “A classmate said: You have a great big nose and fat legs” (6) Louise Deutsch believes Piercy wrote “big nose and fat legs” as a “synecdoche for the whole body, if not the whole person” (1) Not only are these social constraints affecting our behavior, but they also affect the communication between the offending classmate, who has yielded to the social pressures, and the girl. The offender “unflatteringly” compares the girl to his idea of feminine physique (Deutsch 1).
Stereotypes of how a woman should appear and behave, have always been around in some shape or form, These ideals are implanted into girls’ minds at a young age and can do a lot of harm in the future. The second stanza of “Barbie Doll” starts off as normal as the first, but easily strays into different meaning. The girl is described as “healthy, tested intelligent/ possessed strong arms and back” (7-8). However all these positive characteristics are diluted by her appearance, she is completely consumed by them and does not see her own qualities.
On another hand, a Barbie doll is not portrayed with muscular arms, having a strong back, or being very smart. Barbie looks blown out of proportion, she is rigid, she does not step out of line, she just smiles and does not talk, and she does whatever her puppeteer wants of her. “She went to and fro apologizing”, Robert Perrin notes the melancholic rhythmic emphasis and “depression cycle” of “to and fro” (87). This line conveys that the girl is convinced that “Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs”(11). For the first time, the reader is given traits of the girl that provide the “countermovement for the poem” (Perrin 87).
This girl tries to live up to the epitome, for she has apologized and now wants to repair herself so she will be acceptable. This line re-emphasizes the ugliness of not measuring up to the standard of an ideal female, a standard set by society. The third stanza Piercy transitions into adulthood. It seems as though the young girl is reaching out for help to match with society’s Barbie like expectations of her. She is “advised to play coy, / exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle” (12-14).
The society is giving her “advice” on how to appear attractive so she is struggling to find out as to why people will not accept her for who she is. Social restrictions accepted by society put a lot of pressure on vulnerable, young girls who at “heart want to resist the influences of dominant culture” (Perrin 84). The girl is looking for an answer that society won’t give her, she has to conform to the Barbie like norm or be herself and unhappy. She keeps trying to obtain that perfection until “Her good nature wore out / like a fan belt“(15-16).
She begins to lose her confidence, individuality, and state of mind. Most women in today’s society suffer from the same issues, so they mold themselves into somebody they aren’t, disguising themselves of what they think is satisfactory, or rushing to grow up. The fan belt mention in this stanza is used as imagery to describe how ones “disguise” can wear out over time, as hers did. When it wears thin she loses all connection with the world, “so she cut off her nose and her legs/and offered them up”(17-18). Marge Piercy said herself “All women are misfits. We do not fit into this world without amputations. meaning girls have it harder in our society; they put on makeup and take on drastic measures to change themselves just to fit in. At the end she achieves her perfection by becoming a “Barbie Doll”. The undertaker was able to use make-up to cover the pain and suffering this girl went through, and placed her into the mold of a Barbie Doll. She gets makeup “painted” on, she is nothing more now but a doll and with “a turned-up putty nose” (21) molded in and dressed in a pink and white nightie. These two colors are associated with girls and Barbie dolls. She was finally able to sculpt herself into the shape of the perfect woman. Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said. ”(23), it is only in the last stanza where the girl is dead and has “consummation at last. ”(24) The theme is highlighted by this last ironic statement, ‘To every woman a happy ending. ”(25) for a happy ending is accomplished in this “story” only when the girl has the look of the Barbie Doll, even though it is achieved through death. This is not a happy ending at all. Society has created a false ideal, represented by the title, and the rest of the poem shows how real women fail to achieve the ideal and eventually destroy themselves because the society is more interested in image than value.
Piercy’s Barbie Doll is a well written representation of modern expectations of women. The young girl in this poem goes through the life cycle of womanhood, from baby, to adolescent, to teenager, to an adult. Throughout this cycle, changes come physically and mentally, but the only problem is that she grows up into what the society expects. Piercy deliberately uses traditional girls’ gifts and colors to represent the standards pressed on women. The author also contrasts the popular doll Barbie and the stereotypes of what women should look and act like according to what the Doll represents opposite to her main character.
Using these different affects Piercy has written an effective poem highlighting society’s unjust pressures on young women. These are the things women are expected by society to do to make them more attractive, more perfect, more like Barbie dolls. In The Providence Phoenix Interview Marge Piercy said herself: “One way in which things have not improved is body image. The standard required body image for women to achieve or maintain is impossible for 90 percent of the population.
The media is so powerful that they are constantly pushing the image of these perfect, skinny blond women which doesn’t correspond to the genes, body structure, or health requirements of most women. And this matters a lot because women are always comparing themselves to these media images. Just about every woman we know is dissatisfied with their body and feels inferior. This is insane. It’s gotten much, much, much, much worse. ” At an early age, remarks made about ones appearances can damage an adolescent’s personality and self-esteem.
Just as Piercy said in her interview a lot of these unreal images are portrayed through media and in most cases are very fake and unachievable. The author was able to accomplish this theme in the poem through her tone and imagery, while using colors and items associated with girls. These images set a certain standard in a girl’s mind and in most cases young ladies will go above and beyond to achieve perfection. In this particular case, it was deathly for this young girl, as it is for some women in real life.