Marge Piercy’s poem “Barbie Doll” emphasizes the pressures that young women face to conform to stereotypical ideals of feminine beauty. The girl described in the first four lines of the poem seems to be a “normal” American girl in most respects. She has a typical birth and is given the kinds of toys that encourage girls to think of themselves as girls in all the conventional, predictable, and culturally sanctioned ways:
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.
When the girl becomes a teenager, however, suddenly this idyllic if stereotypical phase of her life comes to an end:
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs. (5-6)
Eventually she and others become obsessed with her “big nose and fat legs.” The girl tries to adopt conventional ways of coping with social prejudice against her appearance, but eventually she apparently commits suicide. Ironically, in her casket she is made to look conventionally beautiful.
Why does Piercy open the poem by calling the newborn baby a “girlchild” rather than simply a “girl”? By combining the words “girl” and “child,” Piercy doubly emphasizes the innocence of the child. We stereotypically think of girls as more innocent than boys, and we stereotypically think of children as more innocent than adults. By calling this child a “girlchild,” then, Piercy employs an unusual and old-fashioned word to emphasize the innocence of this female child – an innocence that will later be crushed when she becomes a teenager.