James Dickey

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Compare and contrast society's expectations of women in "The Leap" by James Dickey and "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy.

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Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" is aggressive in its critique of the expectations places on girls and women in modern society. The poem's title indicates the extremely narrow confines of what is considered the best way for a woman to be – exactly like a Barbie doll. The girlchild of the poem cannot...

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Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" is aggressive in its critique of the expectations places on girls and women in modern society. The poem's title indicates the extremely narrow confines of what is considered the best way for a woman to be – exactly like a Barbie doll. The girlchild of the poem cannot hope to live up to that, though, and is cut down to her most objectionable physical features: "Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs" (ln 11). She also has another set of characteristics she must subscribe to in order to be at least acceptable in the eyes of society:

"She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle" (ln 12-14).

Living in such a confusing span of behaviors and attitudes is exhausting, though. In the end, the only way for the girlchild to live up to society's expectations is to cut off her nose and legs. She's dead, but "everyone" comments on how pretty she looks in the casket. 

The only person who seems to be on the girlchild's side is the narrator, who notes, 

"She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity" (ln 7-9).

The narrator has basically just listed all the qualities that no one in society cares about girls having. Even though intelligence and strength will serve the girlchild better in facing the hardships of life than a cute nose, these are not what society appreciates, so they remain unused by the girlchild. 

In Dickey's poem "The Leap," we still see some of the expectations of society creeping in: the narrator recalls his childhood crush "when she came, / With the hem of her skirt where it should be / For a young lady, into the annual dance" (ln 13-15). Despite some minor comments that hold up a particular societal standard for young women, though, the narrator's respect and admiration for Jane MacNaughton comes from a less ladylike act: her impulsive decision to leap up and touch the end of one of the hanging decorations, to see if she could jump high enough. 

As the narrator thinks back at that middle school dance, he recalls Jane as:

"...thin
And muscular, wide-mouthed, eager to prove
Whatever it proves when you leap
In a new dress, a new womanhood, among the boys" (ln 21-24)

His description of her doesn't exactly fit the expectation of a demure and quietly pretty lady that is the standard convention of beauty. Instead, she is strong and eager, engaged in a act that one typically sees young boys doing, to show off their strength. She is unafraid to demonstrate her athleticism and prove herself strong.

That said, there are still some disturbing cliches about portrayal of women here. First, Jane MacNaughton is viewed from the male gaze: a boy who loved her in grade school. He seems to be glorifying her in a way that one can only do when they don't know someone well – it makes her seem a bit one-dimensional as a character and person. Second, he seems to have a bit of a white knight complex about her. After he learns of her suicide (by another leap, out of a building), he instructs the Jane of his memory to "hold on / To that ring I made for you, Jane--" (ln 50-51), wishing that she could stay safe in his memory, as she was that night at the dance. 

Finally, the fact that Jane went on to kill herself suggests that the carefree ease she appeared to feel at the dance was not something that she could carry into her adult life. Married, with 4 children, she appears to have gotten all a woman would want, according to society. Still, something must have been missing from her life to cause her to commit suicide. Perhaps this too is a recognition that even girls who seem to thrive rejecting societies standards cannot maintain their rebellion. 

Still, the ultimate difference between the narrator's view of Jane MacNaughton and "everyone's" view of the girlchild remains. While the latter is cut down for her deficiencies, the other is lifted up for her strength and carefree love of life.  

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