“Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy explores the emotional pressure on women caused by society’s ideals of feminine beauty. The poem is given a title after the well-loved doll from Mattel to show the type of features expected of a girl in order that she is considered beautiful. The other strengths of the girl in the poem are ignored in favor of physical attributes. Comparing women to what is considered a physical model of what is beautiful can destroy the individuality and self-worth of different types of beauty, including beauty that transcends the physical. Little girls are expected to play with dolls.
The girl in the poem is said to be “born as usual” (Piercy line 1) and “presented dolls that did pee-pee” (Piercy line 2). She is either emotionally very feminine that she chooses what other little girls would play with, or she has been brought up in such a way that she is molded into the typical little girl. Everything is fine with the girl; she plays with what other little girls play with and wears “wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” (Piercy line 4). Little children are too innocent to point out differences that only the brainwashed Barbie-loving society can tell.
Robert Perrin believes that “the ceremonial formality of presented, juxtaposed with the euphemistic word pee-pee” (Perrin 83) contribute to the poem’s meaning. It begins the poem’s use of irony, although in some way it is very feminine to be formal with some words and yet to refuse using other words which are considered to be too vulgar for a lady to say, like to urinate. So far, the main character is doing well as the society expects her. Puberty changes the little girl’s place in the society’s favor.
She may have healthy appetites and a keen intellect (Piercy lines 7-9), but she often feels the need to apologize for her facial features and weight (Piercy lines 10-11) that do not meet the standards of a beautiful young woman in the eyes of society. In fact, it is very difficult to attain the standards of a life-sized Barbie equivalent; proportionally she will be about five feet and six inches tall, is 110 pounds, wears sized seven clothes and measures “a top-heavy 39-18-33” (duCille 9). To add to the young girl’s pressure, she does not possess the beautiful face and thin body of what is considered the average pretty girl.
Her other, better, qualities are not even given the appreciation they deserve, even though she is basically a normal girl with something minor lacking, according to society (Frisk). For a young girl who is still seeking her place in the world, this is devastating. While she keeps on apologizing for her “flaws”, the poem seems to apologize by also occasionally mentioning her good characteristics. Other people try to change the girl into something that she is not. She is being transformed to become someone who is supposedly a better person.
“She was advised to play coy, /exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle” (Piercy lines 12-14). The changes are to be made on her physical features and also on her personality. This is to produce the stereotypical female: she not only looks good, she also has to behave in a certain manner, like baking cookies for her children so that they have something to eat when they arrive home (Schimone 79). This is the type of woman that the girl’s so called advisers want her to be: a charming woman with a ready smile but who does not act vulgar; instead, she must “play coy” or act shy.
The poet, Marge Piercy, on the other hand, believes that “it wasn’t good enough for women to keep making the coffee and running the mimeo machines while the men were off on power trips on theory and leadership” (Altman 6). Women must not be expected to fit into a mold. Instead, each woman’s individuality must be accepted and appreciated. Then, we are again introduced to irony, because compared to the impossibly proportioned Barbie doll, the girl is more capable of an intellectual conversation and a warm welcome. She is flesh and blood, while Barbie is an inanimate doll. Yet, the latter seems to garner more approval from society.
It is indeed enough pressure to push a young girl to the edge. Other girls who have the same pressure develop illnesses like eating disorders. The unnamed girl in the poem develops depression as a result of hopelessness. This is evident in the line “Her good nature wore out/ like a fan belt” (Piercy lines 15-16). This is the point at which the poem turns into a darker territory. The particular simile is used because when a fan belt does wear out, there is no way to move forward. This means that the girl has become so hopeless about her situation that she has decided to do something drastic.
“So she cut off her nose and her legs/ and offered them up” (Piercy lines 17-18). These are lines that are so graphic and shocking that some readers interpret it as plastic surgery to somewhat decrease the shock of someone cutting herself. Some scholars, however, believe that the literal meaning is true because it is a logical precedent to the last stanza, where the poet talks about her funeral. Perrin believes that the girl does the cutting “ceremonially” (Perrin 84), implying that she has done the cutting herself, and this is no plastic surgery.
“Unable to live up to the standards set by the dolls she is given, the children with whom she plays and the adults who urge her to diet, a girl-child sets out to fix her big nose and fat legs permanently” (duCille 8). Ann duCille focuses on the girl’s depression and ultimately, insanity, which enables her to harm herself for the sake of an ideal image that she is unable to reach. “So the author, in a bitter, bitter touch of grotesque comedy, has her cut them off” (Frisk). Phillip Frisk also thinks that the cutting is literal, and a technique used by the poet to emphasize the magnitude of the girl’s despair.
He thinks it is a form of grotesque comedy because the action is too extreme and disturbing. The act may be desperate but a plastic surgery may be dubbed as desperate as well. Either interpretation will emphasize the depths that the girl’s self-esteem has sunk into. The self-mutilation, however, is more deranged and is an extreme illustration of what breaking a girl’s self-worth can do. “In the casket displayed on satin she lay/ with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on/ a turned up putty nose” (Piercy lines 19-21). Again, there are different views on the preceding lines.
It may still be interpreted that the girl has undergone plastic surgery and has ended up with a “putty nose” or a nose that has been molded to the shape desired. However, yet again, the death is a logical consequence to violent self-mutilation, the literal interpretation of the girl cutting herself. “The closing stanza presents an artificially serene view of the girl – prepared by the undertaker with makeup, reconstructed nose, and a “pink-and-white nightie” (Perrin 84). Perrin says that it is the undertaker that prepares the girl’s face for her funeral.
The nose must be fixed so that it can at least be presentable when the girl is viewed in her casket by the mourners. Immobile, the girl is subjected to ministrations that are supposed to make her fit to be seen. She has become a Barbie doll dressed and made up to be aesthetically pleasing. “Doesn’t she look pretty? Everyone said/ Consummation at last” (Piercy lines 23-24). Finally, the girl achieves the compliments that she has always wanted to hear. It is ironic, and unfortunate, that this has not happened during her lifetime but happens instead during her funeral.
According to Perrin, the onlookers’ comment on the dead girl provides a “more disturbing” scenario (Perrin 84). He proceeds by criticizing the “insensitivity – and ultimate cruelty – of a society that encourages patterned behaviors, that fails to recognize the innate values people possess, that creates artificial demands, and that perpetuates unhealthy expectations” (Perrin 84). They have learned to appreciate the girl when she is dead and made up by the undertaker. It seems that they too believe that the girl is better off dead and pretty, than plain but healthy and alive.
This is a self-absorbed society focused on what they believe a woman should be. The woman itself is not asked if she is still comfortable about the expectations and pressures attached to her very own femininity. She has to wait for other people to affirm her beauty and not make her own mind about what real beauty is all about. “To every woman, a happy ending” (Piercy line 25). The poem ends in irony. It is difficult to believe that dying through self-mutilation can gather such a comment. The people seem to be unsympathetic.
Instead, they think that the girl has gotten what she has always wanted. They do not stop to think that when the girl is still living, she would have wanted to feel more at ease with herself, with who she really is, rather than constantly try to please other people. She does get her peace, at last, but it has to be this tragic. “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy is a reminder of the dangers of comparing women to idealized versions of the perfect woman and the value of appreciating a woman’s worth beyond her physical form.
A woman is not just a body, but a complete bundle of the physical, emotional and intellectual. On the other hand, the Barbie doll figure may be attractive to some, but it is after all, only a doll. Women may have to endure dangerous physical alterations in order to follow this ideal. Therefore, it can be concluded that a woman is not an object for men to enjoy watching, but she is her own person who can choose the path she wants to take. Works Cited Altman, Meryl. “Lives on the Line. ” The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 19, no. 7 (April 2002): 6-7. duCille, Ann.
“Review: Little Big Woman. ” The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 3 (November 1993): 7-9. Frisk, Phillip. “Teaching Notes: Barbie Doll. ” Radical Teacher (Winter 1991). Perrin, Robert. “”Barbie Doll” and “G. I. Joe”: Exploring Issues of Gender. ” The English Journal, Vol. 88, no. 3 (January 1999): 83-85. Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll. ” 22 November 2007 <http://www. poemhunter. com/poem/barbie-doll/>. Schimone, Anthony J. “At Home with Poetry: Constructing Poetry Anthologies in the High School. ” The English Journal, Vol. 89, No. 2 (November 1999): 78-82. Ф
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