Marge Piecy’s “Barbie Doll”Gender Identity in Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” Dolls often give children theirfirst lessons in what a society considers valuable and beautiful.
These dollsoften reveal the unremitting pressure to be young, slim, and beautiful in asociety which values mainly aesthetics. Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”exhibits how a girl’s childhood is saturated with gender-defined roles andpreconceived norms for how one should behave. In order to convey her thoughts,the author uses familiar, yet ironic, imagery, as well as uses fluctuating tonein each stanza to better draw attention to the relevant points of hercontention. The first four lines of “Barbie Doll” are written in a trite,simplistic tone which represent the normality and basic needs of infancy. It isat this point in one’s life that a child has no ability to deviate from thenorm, simply because they have no knowledge of it and are completely influencedby what their parents present them with.
The presentation of a doll and an oven,along with lipstick (1-3), ensure that the girl will know exactly which genderrole she must be. These lines imitate the rigidity in which sexual and genderroles are defined. The tone of the introductory stanza changes abruptly in linefive when the speaker relates “Then, in the magic of puberty, a classmatesaid/ You have a great big nose and fat legs. ” What is particularly ironic isthat puberty is referred to as a “magic” time, when really it is a time foremotional crisis within many children as they struggle to develop theirautonomy. This line is directed in a candid fashion which digresses from themildness of the first few lines, rendering it quite more effective thansimplistic speech. The second stanza of “Barbie Doll” starts off as normalas the first, but easily strays into different meaning.
While “She washealthy, tested intelligent” (7) connotes positive aspects of the girl,”possessed strong arms and back/ abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity”connotes an entirely divergent idea. Gender roles always defined the man as”strong” and the woman as “weak,” the man as “skillful with hishands” and the woman as “skillful with a cookie tin,” and finally, the manas the “sexual aggressor” while the woman was the “submissivehelp-mate. ” In lines eight and nine, the girl is identified by thecharacteristics typically associated with the male gender, something quiteunusual and completely opposite that of what line seven implies. “She went toand fro apologizing” (10) conveys that the girl recognizes her traits asdisparaging and dishonorable. The last line of the second stanza again changesin tone from simple to forthright with the statement “Everyone saw a fat noseon thick legs”(11).
This line re-emphasizes the ugliness of not measuring upto the standard of an ideal female, a standard set by society. Piercy addressesthe stereotypical manners that women are pressured to perform in the thirdstanza when she writes “She was advised to play coy/exhorted to come onhearty/exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle”(12-14). By advising the girl to actenthusiastic in response to a man, starve herself to be thin, fake emotions, andinfluence men with soft words and flattery, the author makes a general statementabout how women were practically forced to be something whether or not theywanted to. The words “coy” and “smile” conjure up images of a falsepassivity that women must endure, images that help to shape the poem byproviding a better view of what the subject experienced. Line fifteen contains areference to a fan belt, an object that, similarly to a person’s “goodnature,” will wear out from use and abuse.
The change in tone is repeated onceagain as the author switches from mild lines about personality to a dramaticline in which an analogy is made to represent an internal change in thecharacter’s mentality. With the beginning of the last stanza of “BarbieDoll,” the reader can achieve almost a sense of relinquishment as the subjectsymbolically “. . . cut off her nose and her legs/ and offered them up. ” Thereader is led to believe that the girl has come to a realization that she mustaccount for the loneliness and emptiness that she has felt as a result ofimitating a false person.
This culmination is her death, an act of hersurrendering herself to the pain. With line twenty’s mention of an”. . . undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,” the author paints an image ofconcealment–the concealment of hurt and anguish suffered when a girl was forcedto assimilate into a materialistic society which functions only according to thestandards set by its members. Line twenty-one continues the pattern of ironicimagery with a vision of a “putty nose,” something that, along with thecosmetics, helps to conceal reality, and show the falseness of the idealisticstandards that society dictates.
The “pink and white nightie” (22)symbolizes the supposed demureness of a female by assuming that pink and whiteare feminine colors. In line twenty-three, people ask “Doesn’t she lookpretty?” This is yet another example of ironic imagery that the author uses tomake the reader visualize the situation and appraise the nonsensical way inwhich we judge others, regardless of whether or not we are actually seeingdeeper than the surface image. The author attempts to evoke pathos in the lasttwo lines of the poem in the same manner that she used to change the tone at theend of each stanza–by using ironic imagery and conflicting, bold statements. Byrelating the girl’s death to “consummation”(24), she invokes a realizationin the reader of the completion or culmination of an act.
This act is the goalof society to change its inhabitants into “Barbie Dolls. ” It wasn’t untilthe girl/subject was dead that anyone considered her pretty, and even then itwas not actually her who they were looking at; rather, it was a generatedcharacter. Line twenty-five works with the previous line to evoke feelings ofpity and reconciliation within the reader as they contemplate the severity ofthe pressures that society can produce.