A Response Paper on “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy

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Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll" was published in 1971. The second-wave feminism movement was gathering momentum during this time. Sexual emancipation and gender empowerment ideas were spreading in an attempt to affect social reform and counter traditional feminine stereotypes. This poem is ideally suited to the time period in which it was written. It draws attention to pervasive and repressive patterns that impact women by confining them in such oppressive positions. Furthermore, the speaker emphasizes the risks of pressuring individuals to conform to such stifling positions and values. In my opinion, Marge Piercy has done exceptional work in highlighting the devastating effects of pushing for unreasonable ideals and conflicting social expectations.

Reading the poem’s title “Barbie Doll” made one wonder what the poem is about. The title may raise one’s curiosity as to the subject of the poem. Admittedly, I had a few impressions myself. The first idea that may cross one’s mind is that the poem could be about young children playing with Barbie dolls. One may also assume the subject is probably about a stereotypically fake girl; the clichéd perfect girl. Alternatively, one may think it is about the opposite; someone whose qualities strongly contradict those of a perfect ‘doll.' However, I was pleasantly surprised at the direction the author took. She manages to make a young girl the subject of her poem. Through a short narrative of the girl’s life, Piercy conveys a strong message in criticism of the prevailing impossible stereotypes, and societal expectations thrust upon women.  She proclaims the effect of these stereotypes – which propagate the repression of women’s freedom to forge their own identities and paths – as being dangerous.

At the very beginning of the poem, I am confronted by the realities the young girl has to face right from infancy. It is evident that she already has her gender roles assigned to her. I feel like Piercy subtly uses the word “presented” to convey a deeper meaning of the gifting, “and presented dolls that did pee-pee/ and miniature GE stoves and irons/ and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.” (2-4). The word “present” sticks out because it portrays the gifting as a symbolic ceremony inducting the young girl into the stereotypical roles of womanhood. This assertion is further supported by the types of gifts the girl is given. These include dolls, to prepare the stereotypical role of women as child bearers and their role in nurturing them; stoves and irons to symbolize the role of women’s place and duties in the home; lipstick to emphasize the societal expectations regarding women maintaining their beauty. All these point out to the societal tendencies to indoctrinate young girls from a young age without giving them the options to choose their paths and forge paths of their desire. 

Moreover, I feel like girls and women are subjected to a lot of unreasonable expectations that take a toll on their mental well-being. One of the instances in Piercy’s poem that illustrates this is, “She was advised to play coy/ exhorted to come on hearty” (12-13). These two lines present a scenario that in itself is contradictory. It is practically impossible for one to play coy yet be heart simultaneously. Statements like these are troublesome because their effect is that an individual is locked in internal conflict and confusion as they try to reconcile the two. These are some of the real causes for issues with low self-esteem among young women since they are always in conflict as to whether they are acting well as per the expectations of society.

In a similar light, I also believe that Piercy’s use of similes serves to highlight the girl’s reaction to the overwhelming expectations represents the change many young women undergo in their journey to adulthood. She describes the girl’s reactions as “Her good nature wore out/ like a fan belt” (15-16). Unlike their male counterparts, girls have so many expectations to live up to. This can be very overwhelming and mentally draining. These expectations include those concerning their looks; what activities they should or should not engage in; the directions their professional lives to take; and their role in social relationships. These expectations can be overwhelming to the extent of affecting the positive attitudes they may have once held in their childhood. 

The author succeeds in communicating the frustration of girls in their quest to find their identities. These lines communicate this point best;

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. (7-11)

Many girls grow up unaware of the challenges that await them in their pubescent periods. A good number are smart, intelligent, gifted and able to accomplish many great things. However, they find that suddenly the world measures their worth is determined by their beauty or lack of it thereof. Every other positive attribute is kept on the back burner, and only one is concentrated upon. These instances of judgment and discrimination affect the self-esteem of many who are not considered attractive.

I was especially moved by the irony that is presented in the poem. Piercy uses it to emphasize the predicament girls usually find themselves in. Constant judgment and unwarranted criticism almost become perpetually permanent in their lives. In one instance during, “magic of puberty, a classmate said:/You have a great big nose and fat legs” (5-6). This is constantly repeated and bombarded into her, and eventually, she resorts to believing it since “everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs” (11). The girl was not perfect and everyone who could take the opportunity to remind her of it did so. She becomes engulfed in angst and wants the approval and acceptance of her judges. She tries to appease them to no avail. Eventually, she realizes that it is an impossible task. She commits suicide by “cutting off her nose and legs/ and offering them up” (17-18). This is the interesting part. It is only at her death when “displayed on silk” (19) that she gains their acceptance and approval; “Doesn’t she look pretty? Everyone said. / Consummation at last. / To every woman a happy ending.” (23-25). She tries to gain their approval her entire life and fails at every attempt. Only at the end does she succeed when her actions were at the cost of her death. The irony underlines the true nature of societal expectations as overwhelmingly unrealistic and unattainable; to try meeting them would result in consequences as dire as death itself.

Additionally, it is clear that Piercy brilliantly incorporates various literary elements including; simile, irony, and diction to create a light atmosphere which lies in contradiction to the main character’s reality. For instance, the line “magic of puberty” (5) is ironic especially due to the fact that puberty is a period of “awkward” changes for most young boys and girls. The nonchalant use of ‘magic’ contradicts the emotions being felt by the girl. It is also quite obvious that the author keeps referring to her ‘fat nose’ and ‘thick legs’ (11) despite bestowing upon her qualities of ‘intelligence’ and ‘health.' This is perhaps a pointer to the contradictions a girl is forced to reckon with in her life.

In conclusion, I believe Marge Piercy aims to highlights the plight of the girl child in her poem. Feminism has played a key role in the efforts ensure equality among the genders and to in making sure women are not bound by be repressive expectations and gender roles. However, for the most part, the world is still largely patriarchal and more needs to be done. Many girls still find themselves in lives filled with contradiction and dictated by others views of them rather than what their hearts desire. Just as Ms. Piercy points out in her poem, I believe that we need to move beyond the unreasonable expectations set for girls and allow them to forge their paths. Only then shall we truly achieve equality of the genders.

Work cited.

Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll.” An Introduction to Literature. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, WilliamBurto, and William E. Cain. 13th Ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004, pp. 700-701.

May 04, 2022




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