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In the poem, "Barbie Doll," by Marge Piercy, the title reflects the seemingly perfect essence of the doll, which some might assume to reflect the physical characteristics of a perfect woman. In the poem, the contradiction between natural beauty and "popular" beauty are discussed.
We know that in truth, a woman with the proportions of a Barbie doll would not be able to stand up, although some women have tried to copy the Barbie doll look.
This is one of my long-favorite poems because it battles some of society's expectations of a young female against the natural and inner-beauty of girls (who will one day be women). Much like the old adage of children in general "seen but not heard," this poem addresses (at the time it was written) America's expectations of little girls:
...dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
This reflected the norms of the 1950s when women stayed home and cooked, cleaned, reared children, and met their husband at the door, dressed to perfection with dinner waiting on the table. (A copy of Housekeeping Monthly's "The Good Wife's Guide"—which may be fictious, though I have seen copies of the single-page article in school for many years—summarizes these conceptions, which are not fictious.)
For all of the little girl's strengths...
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
...and one would think that this would be enough, she...
....went to and fro apologizing.
This is because she was deemed, we infer by comparing her to the perfect Barbie doll, imperfect with her "great big nose and fat legs." With her physical attributes aside, the girl is then taught how to "play the game."
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
The negative side of all this advice is seen with the phrases "play coy" and "smile and wheedle," as if these things would enhance her existence and make her more socially acceptable, as would "exercise, diet."
Unable to be all that her peers, and later society, expects of her, the young girl grows tired of working so hard because she has been told she is, as noted in Dave Barry's essay, "Beauty and the Beast," "not good enough." Symbolically, she cuts off nose and legs, but I think this literally means she takes her own life.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
Only in death can the "undertaker" make her look as society would wish with a putty nose and pretty nightgown.
...a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Sadly, not much has changed—the skinny Barbie has lost its impact (though many women would argue the point), but celebrities, and women in television and magazine ads, have taken the doll's place. Our daughters are encouraged to be thin and voluptuous, with long lashes, flawless skin, permanent tans, and pearly white, teeth-straight smiles.
Though the poem does not use "Barbie doll" in it, the inference is clear, and if anyone knows anything about a Barbie doll and/or has owned one, it is easy to see why the author is concerned with the messages sent to so many girls as to what is needed to be "good enough," when who we are should be praised, and be "more than good enough."
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