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Barbie Doll By Marge Piercy (Summary, Explanation & Analysis)

Barbie Doll

Photo by Tara Winstead

This girl child was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
& 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.
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 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.
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.

Introduction of Poem (Barbie Doll)

“Barbie Doll” first appeared in Piercy’s collection of 1973 “To Be of Use”. The very image that she uses in this poem is a bold rebuff to the social standards that American society maintains in forcing women to adopt stereotypical feminine behavior. It is the symbol of a much propagated ideal feminine character and the role she is expected to play in the man-dominated society. It exerts enormous social pressures on women to socialize and transform themselves according to the rules set for them. She is to mold herself into a more ostentatious character and forsake her originality.

The derisive imagery and ironic tone of the poem denounce the patriarchal system and gender discrimination of modern society. The supposed perfection of the female body that this poem idealizes is simply not achievable. In reality, a small percentage of the female population would live up to the standards set for them. The woman’s attempt to emulate Barbie’s appearance is a deviation from her originality.

This process of transformation is inherently destructive for the woman that forcibly undergoes changes that are contrary to her natural behaviors. The poem holds a mirror up to our own vanity and reveals the rampant destruction of self-worth that comes from comparing the normal to the unreal. Piercy has successfully diverted the reader’s attention to the fact that forcing the people, especially women, into restrictive roles and ideals may prove disastrous, leading to emotional conflicts that are often difficult if not impossible to resolve. The standards set for them are too high to achieve and resultantly many women may fall into depression and low self esteem.

Critical Summary

The reader’s first response to the title of this poem shows that it may be a fairy tale usually the parents relate to their children. The poem actually personifies the original Barbie Doll that appeared in 1956, having a tall and shapely body, with blue eyes and golden hair. The intent behind the selection of “Barbie Doll” as the title of the poem clearly indicates the social changes that were taking place during the nineteen sixties and seventies in American society. The poem appeared a few years after the introduction of Barbie in American society.

Initially, it was supposed to be a simple children’s toy but the poet was well aware of its drastic effects on society. Since the children quickly learn things and adapt to the prevalent social behaviors, the iconic image of an ostensibly figured Barbie haunts their minds from the very childhood. They think of it as an idealized female character. Consequently, the imitation of this idealized female icon leads them to deep inner conflicts that mostly surface out in the form of depression and other psychological disorders.

The poem begins in a fairy-tale’s vein. The archaic term “girl-child” in the first stanza is intentionally used to give the poem a mythical tincture. The dolls, stoves, irons, and lipsticks are the traditional things that girls are always associated with. The first stanza sketches the role of a female child that she is going to undertake in her future life. She is going to identify her social role with the things specified for her. The image of a doll, presumably an idealized female body, always reminds her of the standards and ideals of the society that she is living in. Stoves and irons make their role limited to homes only. They are expected to take up the role of household wives and look after the homes and children. However, lipstick, the object that adds to the physical appearance of a woman, is considered the most fascinated cosmetic for women.

Child’s Infancy

From the child’s infancy, she is already assigned her gender role. The poet’s use of the word “presented” makes the process more formal and makes the ceremony one of dictation rather than one of choice. The list of the items, already mentioned, foreshadows society’s expectations of the role she will have to perform. Then the girl child gradually steps in the “magic of puberty” This is the time when the body undergoes different physical changes. This time is called magical because at this stage a girl transforms from a child into an adolescent.

At this stage, the physical changes parallel the Psychological as both are inevitable. This is a very critical period and the girls usually become more susceptible to the external environment. She begins to realize herself and becomes sensitive to even the slightest things around her. It was at this stage that the girl’s sufferings began in the poem. She was scolded by someone that she had a great big nose and fat legs. (Barbie Doll)

Now, these remarks were enough for the young girl. Her reaction to these remarks was rather apologetic in the beginning. She tried to overcome these personality gaps by literally apologizing to everyone. Although she was healthy, intelligent, possessed strong arms and back, had an abundant sexual attraction, and skillful hands, yet she was denied the due status she deserved. All these qualities were not enough to exonerate her from the charges leveled against her. A “fat nose on thick legs” completely overshadowed her good qualities. In order to overcome these shortcomings, “she was advised to play coy/ exhorted to come on hearty”. The two words “coy and hearty” used together show the internal conflict of the girl. It is impossible for one to come off coy and hearty at the same time; thus, the advice creates more confusion for the girl and intensifies her sufferings.

She was also told to do “exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.” All these devices added to her internal conflict and an extreme reaction was inevitable. The girl’s tolerance for the expectations around her eventually expired. Like a car without a fan belt, she overheated and broke down. She came to believe that everyone saw “a fat nose on thick legs.” She began to lose her will and she gave up. Predictably, she turned to suicide, but not only did she kill herself, but she also removed her imperfections. “So she cut off her nose and legs and offered them up.” This makes it obvious that the reason she killed herself was because of the way people viewed her: not good enough.

Summarizing Last Stanza

The last stanza is the most tragic and ironic. The very person that the girl child could never be is the person “appearing” in her casket, after a makeover by the undertaker. “A turned-up putty nose” and “a pink and white nightie” are features of Barbie-Doll-like beauty and femininity. It is ironic that the very people who couldn’t appreciate the girl, for who she was in life, now admire the person she is made to be in death. After all, she achieved the consummation as the ultimate fulfillment and completion of her inner desire to come up to the expectations of the people around her. Standing over her dead body everyone praised her “Doesn’t she look pretty?” She got the appreciation at the expense of her life.

The poem has a happy ending but it cannot be considered on its face meaning. The meaning of a woman’s happiness is ironically conveyed to the readers. She has achieved it after sacrificing her life. The end really arouses melancholy in the reader’s heart for the sad demise of the innocent girl.

First Theme of Poem

“Barbie Doll” conveys different themes to the readers. The man’s patriarchal system, demanding women to observe complete obedience to him, is no doubt the central theme which one can easily infer from the poem on its first reading. It symbolically describes the inherently destructive nature of social standards and principles laid out for women. A system of social organization in which male prerogative is the ruling principle forces the women to trample on their feelings and self-esteem and transform their characters in a way that suits the men. The stereotypical social behaviors expected of them, lead the woman to internal psychological conflicts. These conflicts cause depression and other psychological disorders.

Historically, this subservience has been externally manifesting through different modes of law; for example, until the twentieth century women had been denied voting privileges in the United States and many other countries in the world. But patriarchy also exhibits its power through the shaping of mind and self-image

Good Women’s Properties

A good woman is one who conforms to patriarchal expectations: she is feminine, domestic, pretty, and accommodating. If a woman does not possess these things, as the girl in Barbie Doll does, she will be punished. Society will discard her. She will be regarded as a freak and her inner qualities will appear more of a shortcoming than strength. Piercy’s poem presents a girl of many talents who is worn down by an image of herself created by others which she could not, literally, live up to. In an act of “self” sacrifice, she cut off her nose and legs, those parts of her which did not conform to how a pretty woman should look like.

This act of mutilation is prevalent even in today’s modern world. The women in tyrannically patriarchal societies of lower equatorial Africa are subject to have “clitorectomies,” procedures that medically remove the clitoris. This deprives the woman of her sexual pleasures and is a constant reminder that her only job is to bear children and serve men. In “Barbie Doll” the girlchild fulfills the people’s expectations by committing suicide. The girl ultimately decided that she would be rather dead and beautiful, than alive and ugly: death is better than being imperfect what a dreadful inference.

Second Theme

The poet also emphasizes to the readers that gender discrimination is inherently embedded in American society. Women are subject to rigid sex roles in modern society. They are forcibly socialized into making their bodies and behavior conform to those roles. The girl child has presented dolls in her early childhood; she is being taught to develop strategies to remain pretty, intellectually passive, and domestic.

She is apologetic to everyone for the wrongs she has never committed. Her physical shortcomings made her realize the incapability that she carries in the form of a “fat nose on thick legs”. She starts to suffer and develop anxiety, depression, and self-concern. Disappointment and lack of self-confidence destroy her personality and change her from a normal to an abnormal person. She was forced to take a harsh step by committing suicide. This violent reaction was predictable. But the consummation that she got after this sacrifice is full of irony. The moral of Piercy’s parable is in the reader’s response. The lesson is contained in the audience’s outrage at the cruel ways in which women have been forced to conform to an ideal of femininity-often in ways antithetical to which they are as human beings.

The poem “Barbie Doll” conveys the message that people tend to accept evaluations of others and are reluctant to peep into their inner persons, thus recognizing their hidden strengths which may turn them into stronger beings with more flexibility to face the hard realities of life. In this poem, the girl could not explore her hidden strengths and thus suffered. She excessively reacted to the external environment and ignored her personality’s strong aspects. She found enough reason to commit suicide by removing the imperfections and conforming to the idealized norms of beauty. The sad conclusion that the readers can infer from the poem is that children, especially girls, who do not fulfill the standards and notions of society have no reason to exist. The poet also emphasizes the fact that the influence these social norms and notions have on the physically crippled children, is simply drastic.

Third Theme

The poem also refers to the society’s commercialized standards, established for the benefits of certain individuals, and where the women are treated as mere toys of entertainment. They are exploited in many ways by using them as tools for commercial purposes. The women models, appearing in various commercial advertisements, inspire the young girls and boys and they resort to the styles and trends propagated in different sources of media. Young minds are more susceptible to the teachings of modern media.

The owners of the media can lead people in any direction they want. The American consumers are always conformists. They tend to be easily influenced by media to the advantage of certain individuals or groups. Piercy indirectly indicates this trend in American society in “Barbie Doll.” She predicts the future of the American people in response to the overcommercialization of different media channels. She tries to convey the message that commercialized standards destroy human values, and if the basic human values are lost, then the innocence and originality of human nature will be replaced by the hard and fast rules of machines.

Style & Diction (Poem: Barbie Doll)

A narrative poem was written in free verse,” Barbie Doll” can be read as a parable of what often happens to women in a patriarchal society. Parables are short poems with morals. The moral of this poem functions as a warning: it urges readers to be aware of the ways in which society shapes our identities and urges women not to compare themselves to idealized notions of feminine beauty or behavior.

Piercy’s diction is occasionally archaic. That is, she uses words and grammatical constructions which we would not use today, for example, “girlchild,” “that did pee-pee”, etc. By weaving these archaisms into a story told in contemporary language, the speaker achieves an effect of timelessness, suggesting that the instance of modern women modeling themselves after Barbie Dolls is only the latest in the history of women’s oppression.

The poem is full of irony and symbolism. The very image of a “Barbie Doll” is the symbol of a modern girl signifying physical attraction, feminism, subservience, and a tool of enjoyment. The poem ends in an ironic tone. The girl, after sacrificing herself by removing the “putty” nose and “fat legs,” receives consummation from the people who attend her funeral. They praised her but at the expense of her life. The simile “Her good nature wore out/like a fan belt” explicitly describes the process of self-destruction that the young girl was passing through.

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