To write an essay comparing and contrasting "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy and "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson, I would begin with a thesis statement in my introductory paragraph. Concentrate on the commonality of the poems—societal expectations vs. the truth of what exists beneath one's appearance. Also include something about what makes the themes so different: one is a woman's anthem against unfair social stereotyping regarding the perfect woman, while the other refers to the perceptions of people regarding the perfect man.
To structure my paper, in the body I would present a short summary of "Barbie Doll" to support the stance that the almost impossibly perfect woman depicted by this glamorous toy sets an unfair example of what women should aspire to look and act like. I would include things that most "baby boomers" would recognize as normal for little girls in the late '50s and 1960s:
...presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
In terms of raising the person to go with those learned behaviors:
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
These excerpts show that the toys the "Barbie-generation" little girls were given supported the roles of motherhood and housewifery. While these are not negative in themselves, these generations of female youngsters were expected to be "cookie-cutter" children, and any deviation was deemed failure. This is shown in the second excerpt that reflects behaviors a little girl was expected to adopt...most especially because she was not a beauty like Barbie—a toy!—the epitome of society's perfect woman.
Next I would concentrate on how the first poem is similar to "Richard Cory." Write the next paragraph about this poem. The narrator reports what the speaker and his/her neighbors know of Cory from seeing him and hearing him speak, and what they assume:
...a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim...
...was rich...richer than a king -
...admirably schooled in every grace...
To make us wish that we were in his place.
In Robinson's poem, society's perceptions are reflected in the description of this seemingly perfect man. Any of the neighbors would gladly change places with him: they assume that how he looks and what he has makes him happy. Cory is deemed perfect based upon appearance.
As the action of each poem pivots, we are confronted with the terrible realities behind those societal expectations/assumptions. The girl who can't measure up destroys herself. Even in death, lying in the casket, funeral arrangements have made her "beautiful" by the "Barbie" standard.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
She is never accepted for the person she is; she is never praised, but as noted in Dave Barry's article, "The Ugly Truth About Beauty," she is found to be "not good enough."
The façade of Cory's seemingly wonderful life hides unhappiness and tragedy:
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Follow now with a paragraph about perceptions/assumptions in the poems. Beauty is simply perception and it does not guarantee happiness. While each poem points out the ideal, it follows with the truth about appearances.
A strong conclusion will finish the essay.
A 1000 word compare/contrast essay gives you plenty of room to include a lot of detail that shows that you have fully explicated both poems and have done a reasonable amount of research on the context and cultural influence of the poems and their central icons. Who are Richard Cory and Barbie, and what do they represent? Given the fate of Richard Cory, what inferences can be drawn for Barbie and her admirers? How does Marge Piercy implicate Barbie in the mutilation death that occurs in her poem.
Ignoring the last stanza of "Richard Cory," how much can you glean about Richard Cory's character from the poem? Try replacing the name Richard Cory with Barbie, and make the pronoun "she" instead of "he." Does the physical description essentially work for both the man and the doll? In your essay, cite specific examples from the poem; for example, what do "clean favored," and "imperially slim" mean? Are the meanings the same for men and women? What is the value placed on these attributes by society and by the people in both poems?
Why does the narrator of the poem assert that Richard Cory was "always human when he talked"? How does the meaning alter when you change the line to "she was always human when she talked"? In "Barbie Doll," the character goes "to and fro apologizing." Would you characterize the nature of her speech as "human" in the same sense expressed in "Richard Cory"?
What is the attitude of the narrator toward Richard Cory? Richard Cory is rich; the poem was written during a severe economic depression, as reflected in the poverty of his admirers referred to in the last stanza. Compare the third stanza with the popular bumper sticker: BARBIE--THAT B* HAS EVERYTHING! Contrast the line from "Richard Cory," "In fine, we thought that he was everything" with "Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs" from "Barbie Doll." How is the character from each poem misperceived based on physical features, and why is death the outcome?
In light of the last stanza, explore the roles of Richard Cory and Barbie as icons, both in their original contexts and as enduring pop culture symbols. In the poem, Richard Cory seems to have no detractors, only admirers--is the poet more critical? Is the reader? How do Barbie's admirers compare with Richard Cory's in the poem? Compare the cautionary conclusion of "Richard Cory" with the outcome of the expectations placed on Piercy's character.