‘Barbie Doll’ by Marge Piercy was inspired by the traditional girl’s toy, the Barbie Doll. It explores themes of feminism and expectations.
The poem was written and published in the early 1970s, during the period of second-wave feminism. Throughout the poem, the speaker explores the sentiments against which feminism was and still is, fighting. She discusses gender and gender stereotypes through the story of a “girlchild.” The poem is filled with haunting and disturbing images that tell the story of a young woman’s life and death.
Explore Barbie Doll
The poem begins with the birth of a “girlchild” who is immediately given all the toys she will need to learn how to be a good mother and wife. She has a “GE stove” and a baby doll, which requires diaper changes. The girl is immediately being trained in her future subservient role.
She enters puberty, and the insults of other children start to wear away at her. They say that she has “a great big nose and fat legs.” These judgments stay with this young woman for the rest of her life.
The speaker makes sure to emphasize all of the beautiful qualities this woman possesses, but neither she nor her peers are able to see and appreciate them. All they can see are her supposed “faults.”
In the second half of Barbie Doll, worn down by the words of others, the woman cuts off her nose and legs as an offering to the world that has tormented her. She dies and is buried with a reconstructed face and “turn-up nose.” In death, the speaker ironically states, she has found the happy ending all women desire.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Barbie Doll,’ Piercy confronts important themes of women’s rights and perception. These two themes are covered throughout the poem as Piercy delves into society’s image of who a woman should be. The poet takes the reader from the “girlchild’s” birth and her first gift, a barbie doll, to her time at school and her death. The young woman is immediately met with standards that she cannot hope to meet, nor could anyone. The Barbie Doll is a symbol of oppression, one that’s used to control and degrade women until they are willing to accept that they are lesser and unworthy of fair treatment. Eventually, the woman in ‘Barbie Doll’ has had enough of the way the world treats her and “cut off her nose, and her legs / and offered them up.” The poem concludes with a haunting image of “everyone” gathered around her coffin, admiring how beautiful she looked in the “undertaker’s cosmetics.”
Structure and Form
‘Barbie Doll‘ by Marge Piercy is a four stanza narrative poem that is separated into four stanzas of varying length. They are relatively close in the line number and line length, allowing some cohesion to the piece without needing a cohesive rhyme scheme. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the lines do not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Piercy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Barbie Doll.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, is a common formal device in poetry that’s concerned with the way that lines end. If a line ends before the conclusion of a phrase or sentence, it is likely enjambed. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines four and five and of the third.
Imagery is one of the most important literary devices that poets use. It refers to the way that poets trigger the reader’s senses with their descriptions of people, places, experiences, and more. For example, these lines from the beginning of the poem: “and presented dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.”
Alliteration is used to help increase the rhyme and rhythm of a poem. It is especially useful when a poem is written in free verse. For instance, “candy” and “classmate” in the first stanza and “pink” and “pretty” in the final stanza.
Analysis of Barbie Doll
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.
Barbie Doll begins with the beginning of a girl’s life. This child, referred to as a “girlchild,” was born, the speaker states, “as usual.” It is important to note the use of the word “girlchild” in this context as the phrase has often been used throughout history as a derogatory term, as if one kid, a boy, is worth more than another, a girl.
This child’s life began in a way that will be quite familiar and relatable to many readers. She was given the toys that are traditionally given to girls and told to act appropriately to her gender. The child was given,
…dolls that did pee-pee
And miniature GE stoves and irons
These toys, familiarly gendered to her sex, are meant to train this child in how to be a woman and a mother. From a young age, she is given these objects as if it is completely natural for a child to spend time changing a pretend baby’s diaper and cooking for an imaginary future family.
It is helpful to imagine the reaction if a “boychild” was given these same toys to play with. The speaker, and author, is hoping to make one question the ways in which we traditionally treat children of different genders.
The speaker continues on, adding to the list of objects that the child acquires at a young age. She is given “wee lipsticks” that are the color of “cherry candy.” They are “wee,” as they are meant for young hands and lips, and they are “cherry” red to connect to the makeup she will assumably be using when she is older.
The child’s childhood ends after the first four lines, and she enters puberty. It is here that she gets her first real-life taste of the contradictions inherent in being a woman in modern society. The speaker explicitly states, in what is a shocking and brutal way, that the children she met in school told the child that she has,
A great big nose and fat legs.
No matter which one is insults thrust upon one as a child, has a way of sticking for many years to come, perhaps all the way into adulthood.
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
In the second stanza, the speaker, narrating from an outsider’s perspective, as someone who is not drawn in by the ideologies of human society, states that the child, who is now becoming a woman, has a good number of positive attributes.
She is both “healthy” and “intelligent.” Her body is strong, and she has,
Abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
These shortlists of attributes are all things that are completely natural for a woman to have but are often, and sometimes usually, frowned upon. Women have not been, and in many places still aren’t meant to be “strong” in any definition of the word. Additionally, they certainly are not meant to be skilled workers or have “Abundant sex drive.”
In the last two lines of this section, the positivity turns to self-hate. The young woman is unable to see herself in the same way that the speaker is. She is fraught with concern over her own appearance and the opinions of others. She goes about “apologizing.” This is a trait that is often spoken of in regards to women and the way in which they are trained to act in the world. The characteristics of meekness and meagreness are often seen as the cornerstone of female sensibilities. With these traits comes a lot of apologizing. Amongst the apologies, those around her can only see “a fat nose and thick legs.” They are unable to look past her physicality to the person she is inside.
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
The second half of Barbie Doll begins where the first left off, in describing the ways in which she was “advised” to act. She should, at all times, be “coy,” as well as “hearty.” Her life should be filled with “exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle.” This last word, “wheedle,” means to use flattery to get what one wants. She should be endearing in all ways and still maintain her good nature.
Unfortunately, but not unusually, as she has aged, her “good nature” has become “wor[n] out.” She is no longer the kind child and young woman that she was in the past. The world has ground her down to their standards.
Finally, as if giving in to the teasing and torment inflicted upon her, the woman cuts.
…off her nose and her legs
And offer[s] them up.
She makes a sacrifice, or dedication, to those that have long controlled her. It is an act of unbridled desperation and she hopes that finally, after she has removed the offensive parts of herself, that she will be free. Sadly, in one way, this is the case.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
The fourth stanza of Barbie Doll begins with a funeral. It becomes clear that the woman has died and that the speaker has thrust the reader into her funeral proceedings. The “casket” in which she lays is sitting on “satin,” as if luxuriating in a final beauty.
The “undertaker” has taken the time to fix up her face, paint on “cosmetics,” and craft for her a “turned-up putty nose.” She finally has the face that she was made to want.
Additionally, she has been dressed beautifully. She is in a “pink and white nightie,” and everyone who sees her thinks that she is finally “pretty.”
In the last two lines, the speaker declares that by society’s standards, the woman now has everything she wanted. She has gained the “happy ending” that every woman on earth dreams of. This facetiously optimistic ending to this depressing narrative emphasizes further the absurdity of what is expected of women.
About Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy was born in March of 1936 in Detroit, Michigan, to a working-class family. As a young woman, Piercy studied at the University of Michigan, where she was the first member of her close family to attend college. She earned an MA from Northwestern University and throughout the 60’s worked as an organizer of political movements. She was inclined with the Students for a Democratic Society and many groups affiliated with feminism, environmental policy and anti-Vietnam War protests.
Throughout her life, Piercy has published approximately 20 novels and 20 books of poetry. Much of her work focuses on social issues, written from a feminist position. One of her most popular works, He, She, and It, published in 1991, won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
In regards to her poetic works, her volume, The Moon is Always Female, is considered to be one of the classic texts of feminism. Her most recent collection came out in 2015 and was titled Made in Detroit.
She currently lives and works in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, alongside her husband.