A Real Woman in a Barbie World


Casey Garland Evans

Is Barbie the ideal woman? "For generations she’s been the doll that little girls have aspired to be–a party girl, career woman and bathing beauty all wrapped into one" (Cain 1). In Marge Piercy’s poem entitled "Barbie Doll," the title underscores the theme of the poem, which is that girls are ultimately and fatally entrapped by society’s narrow definitions of feminine behavior and beauty. By comparing the young lady in the poem to a Barbie doll, the author reveals the irony of the title. In the poem, the speaker is a person aware of the events taking place in a young girl’s life. However, the speaker is not aware of her feelings about what is happening. The poem is told in a matter-of-fact way, much like a Barbie storybook or movie. It is obvious that the author uses Barbie in the poem to symbolize society’s views of what the perfect female should aspire to be. "Barbie’s unrealistic body type–busty with tiny waist, thin thighs, and long legs–is reflective of our culture’s feminine ideal. Yet less that two percent of American women can ever hope to achieve such dreamy measurements" (Cain 1). By using similes, symbols, and a fairy tale-like tone, the author creates a cosmos starring a suicidal young lady instead of Barbie, the glamorous sex symbol the girl is compared to throughout the poem.

In the first stanza, the poem begins in a fairy tale-like fashion. By stating events in order, using pleasant and unpleasant images, and invoking emotion in the reader, the speaker begins his or her comparison of the character’s life to a Barbie doll’s life.

                                                         This girlchild was born as usual
                                                         and presented dolls that did pee-pee
                                                         and 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. (Piercy 1-6)

The speaker sets the tone of the poem in this first stanza by starting with a happy beginning. Like many of the books and cartoons Barbie has starred in, which feature material possessions such as sports cars and endless shopping bags full of goodies, the poem too is filled with nice things for a young girl to play with such as dolls, miniature stoves, play irons, and lipstick. These items are not only gifts that a young girl would like to have but are also things that are considered feminine. However, the items used in the first stanza show how nice and feminine the "girlchild[‘s]" (Piercy 1) world may seem. The items symbolize the gender role that a young girl possesses very early in life. Much like a Barbie doll, all girls are expected to be a certain way and enjoy activities thought to be feminine. The "dolls that did pee-pee" (Piercy 2) symbolize the young girl’s being introduced to the aspects of motherhood. Barbie has been sold along with tiny dolls representing her children. The tiny dolls wear little diapers for Barbie to change. Even in Barbie’s world, females are expected to have children and take care of them. The miniature stoves and irons symbolize the duties an ideal mother is thought to perform. By being presented these items, the young lady in the poem is already practicing for the future tasks of a housewife. Whoever presents her with the gifts is presenting the child with the subtle social norms for a young lady in today’s world. "The dolls, stove, iron and lipstick are all traditional playthings for young girls, but they are also markers of an identity in the making, the things that young girls grow to identify with their own social roles" (Milne 34). Barbie has her own line of pink kitchen sets equipped with pots and pans for her to scrub, a stove that buzzes, and even an iron for her to iron Ken’s shirts with. The "cherry candy" (Piercy 4) flavored lipstick the young lady is presented sounds innocent and fun to play with. However, red lipstick is a very sensual addition to any woman’s make-up collection. The fact that the young girl in the poem applies a sensual shade of lipstick to enhance her lips shows how sexuality is introduced to the child too early in life. Even though many Barbie dolls possesses pink lips, some wear bright, red lipstick like the girl. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines red as "a color whose hue resembles that of blood [ . . .]." The shade of lipstick used in the first stanza of the poem, could be foreshadowing the tragic suicide at the  poem's end.

The next image presented in the first stanza is puberty. In the fifth line of the poem, the speaker makes puberty sound wonderful by referring to the change in a woman’s body as "magic" (Piercy 5). However, in the preceding line, the speaker creates a scene at school with the young lady and a classmate in which the classmate insults the young girl’s body, which has undergone magical changes. The word "magic" (Piercy 5) can also be interpreted a different way. "Piercy uses the term [magic] ironically here, as she is also referring to the pain that comes with puberty" (Milne 34). Because the girl’s heart would have obviously been broken by the classmate’s statement, "the magic of puberty" (Piercy 5) may be a sarcastic way of describing the maturing of a young woman. In the first stanza, the author is obviously comparing the girl to a Barbie doll. The Barbie doll image introduced by the title symbolizes society’s view of a perfect woman. The way the little girl is presented to the reader shows that she could be compared to Barbie. However, the last line of the stanza shows that she struggles already with the guidelines society sets for the ideal woman.

The author continues her comparison of the now, perhaps, teenage girl in the second stanza:

                                                          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. (Piercy 7-11)

Here, the author shows how the girl possesses gifts and may have been unique. However, she is forced to confine herself to what society wants her to be. In the first line of the stanza, it is obvious that the girl is intelligent, much like Barbie is supposed to be. After all, over the years Barbie has had many occupations that require good educations, among them teacher, dentist, and even astronaut. However, the fact that the girl is healthy and has healthy arms and a strong back is anything but similar to Barbie. Based on Barbie’s measurements, if Barbie were a real person, she would more than likely be anorexic. It is obvious by looking at the doll that she has thin, weak looking arms and may even have back pains due to her large chest. In line ten it is obvious that the girl in the poem is giving in to the way society wants her to be. "The girl was made to feel guilty for who she was, for her intelligence and abilities, and also for not being slim and ‘beautiful’" (Milne 34). When the speaker says, "She went to and fro apologizing" (Piercy 10), he or she implies the sociological notion of face-work, the "efforts of people to maintain the proper image and avoid embarrassment in public" (Schaefer 96). For example, if the girl in the poem received a better grade on a test than her peers, she might apologize for it by stating that she was not very smart and was just lucky this time. By apologizing for having an above-average intelligence, the girl shows that she is conforming to society’s view that women are inferior to men. Finally, in the last line of the second stanza, the author recaptures the disgust society has for the girl. In line eleven the speaker states, "Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs" (Piercy 11). This statement shows how society does not see what is on the inside of a woman and what her abilities are. Instead, society judges her only by her appearance. This stanza obviously compares the main character of the poem to a Barbie doll. At this point in the poem, the reader can see how the girl in the poem is very much like the idolized doll and how the fact is creating heartache and conflict in her life.

In the third stanza, the author begins to show how the character in the story begins to suffer from society’s expectations for a young woman.

                                                                     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. (Piercy 12-16)

The expectations society has for the female in the poem are obvious. In the first line, the speaker reveals that society advises the girl to "play coy" (Piercy 12). In other words, the girl should be shy, quiet, and timid. This is exactly the way the creators of Barbie present their doll. Barbie could also be described as coy since all she does is smile, never saying a word. Even though a few models of the doll have possessed voice boxes in the past with pull strings that allow them to speak, most Barbie dolls are mute. In line fourteen, the girl in the poem is compared to Barbie once again. The line in the poem tells the reader that the girl was encouraged to "exercise, diet, smile and wheedle" (Piercy 14). In other words, society encourages the girl to be in great shape, smile all the time, and charm people. One can see in line fourteen that the girl in the poem is expected to be like a Barbie doll. After all, Barbie has an amazingly thin body. In addition, Barbie always has a smile on her face and charms America by being a highly valuable collector’s item. Finally, the last sentence of the third stanza shows how the girl in the poem can no longer tolerate society’s pressure to be like Barbie, the ideal woman. By comparing the girl’s discouragement to a fan belt, Piercy shows how the girl's despair is compared to an object. "Fan belts wear out because of overuse. Fan belts are also commodities—things—like Barbie dolls themselves and, Piercy suggests, like women" (Milne 34).

In the third stanza, the author continues to compare the girl in the poem to a Barbie doll. However, by this time, the reader can see that Barbie stands for something much larger than just a little girl’s toy. The Barbie doll symbolizes the way society expects a young lady to be. The irony of the title begins to be revealed in this stanza when the author reveals that the girl’s "good nature [is wearing] out" (Piercy 15).

The final stanza of the poemsuggests how it is ironic that the girl is compared to a Barbie doll.

                                                           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. (Piercy 17-25)

In this stanza, it is obvious that the female in the poem is being compared to a Barbie doll. "[The] lines [in this stanza,] are laden with irony. The very person that the girlchild could never be is the person ‘appearing’ in her casket, after a makeover by the undertaker" (Milne 34). After the female’s suicide, she is laid in a satin coffin. She is adorned with make-up, a putty nose, and a white nightie. These are symbols the author uses to symbolize society’s view of the perfect female, obviously Barbie-like qualities. It is ironic that society, symbolized by "everyone" in the poem, says she is pretty. Even though she is dead, society finally views her as pretty because she now has an acceptable nose, even though it is made of putty. She is also accepted because she is wearing make-up and a nightie in the colors that represent purity and femininity, pink and white. In line twenty-four, it is obvious that only in the girl’s death does society view her as perfect. The final line of the tragic fairly tale-like poem implies that the ending is a happy one. However, the irony is that the ending is sad and shocking. The "happy ending" (Piercy 25) is ironic because it is not happy at all. Because the ending is described as happy, one can see how "every woman" (Piercy 25) could view the girl’s death as a happy ending because the female in the poem is no longer alive to challenge a woman’s place in society. Since the unique girl with an ugly nose and fat legs is dead, it is a happy ending for women in society because she was an outcast who represented what society considered to be abnormal.

Marge Piercy has ironically tied together a suicidal girl with a well-known little girl’s toy known as Barbie. By giving the poem the title "Barbie Doll," Piercy shows how society expected the girl in the poem to possess the desired qualities of a female. The cosmos created by the author allows the reader to see inside the world of a troubled young lady who differs from the norms society has set. From this poem, one can conclude that society compares women to Barbie dolls, which in turn reflects the qualities society values in women. Marge Piercy has done a wonderful job of showing society’s perspective on the perfect woman. The symbols, tone, and comparison between the girl and Barbie allow the reader to see how society expects certain traits from females.

Works Cited

"Barbie Doll." Poetry for Students. Vol. 9. Ed. Milne, M. Ira. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 34.

Cain, Angela. "Barbie’s Body May be Perfect, but Critics Remind Us It’s Plastic." Albany Times 22 Mar. 1996. 7
           Apr. 2002.

Piercy, Marge. "Barbie Doll." Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 8th ed. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg
           Johnson. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2001. 835-836.

"Red." Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 1993 ed.

Schaefer, Richard T. Sociology. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Casey Garland Evans, at the time of this writing a freshman in Business Administration, wrote "Real Woman in a Barbie World" for Dr. Barbara Murray's ENGL 1102 class during spring 2003 semester. Ms. Garland is a member of the Baptist Student Union.

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