Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
Lines 1-4: The title of this poem refers to Mattel’s Barbie Doll, a popular toy for young girls. The original Barbie—tall, shapely, with blonde hair and blue eyes—debuted in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Mattel has manufactured a variety of “Barbies” since then—everything from Action Adventure Barbie, to “Mod” Barbie, to Francie, an African-American “Barbie.” The poem begins in a fairy-tale vein, the archaic term “girlchild” being used to underscore the mythic quality of the story. The dolls, stove, iron and lipstick are all traditional playthings for young girls, but they are also markers of an identity in the making, the things that young girls grow to idenitfy with their own social roles. The doll presents an idealized image of the body, and stove and irons tell them what kind of work is expected of them as adults. Lipstick, perhaps the most sexualized cosmetic for women, signals to young girls that they will be valued for their physical appearance.
Lines 5-9: The “magic of puberty” introduces the theme of growth. It is a magical time because the body changes rapidly. Girls begin to menstruate and their bodies change. Piercy uses the term ironically here, as she is also referring to the pain that comes with puberty. Adolescents become more aware of one another as sexual and social beings and are frequently cruel towards one another. The “girlchild” is told she has “a great big nose and fat legs” even though she is smart, healthy and strong. The latter descriptors, however, are seen as being positive only for males, not females. Being good with one’s hands (manual dexterity) is a conventional male trait. Similarly, while having an “abundant sexual drive” for boys might be seen as “sowing oats” or being a “real” man, for girls it is often considered aggressive or the mark of a “whore.”
Lines 10-14: The girl was made to feel guilty for who she was, for her intelligence and abilities, and also for not being slim and “beautiful.” She apologized to everyone for not being the person they wanted her to be, but all they could see was her body and how it did not match their idea of what a woman should look like. They tried to help her be more of an idealized woman by suggesting how to compensate for her unfeminine qualities. It is important to understand that for Piercy the “girlchild” is “everygirl,” not some poetic character with no relation to the real world. Children are socialized through family, culture, and education from the day they are born. Piercy is symbolically examining the process of how children come to inhabit their gendered identities and the destructive consequences of those processes for women.
Lines 15-18: Fan belts wear out because of overuse. Fan belts are also commodities—things—like Barbie dolls themselves and, Piercy suggests, like women. This simile is interesting because it uses an image we associate with cars, and cars are a symbol of masculinity in American culture. Her “good nature,” that part of her that sought to accommodate others, has been so exploited that she can no longer continue. She “offers up” (a gesture of sacrifice) her nose and legs, the symbols of her oppression, but to whom we do not know: presumably patriarchal power itself.
Lines 19-25: These lines are laden with irony. The very person that the girlchild could never be is the person “appearing” in her casket, after a makeover by the undertaker. “A turned-up putty nose” and “a pink and white nightie” are features of Barbie-doll-like beauty and femininity. It is ironic that the very people (“everyone”) who could not appreciate the girlchild for who she was in life, now admire the person she is made to be in death. In Piercy’s fable, it is society (not the girl) that achieves consummation, for it has made the girlchild into what it wanted. “Consummation” is a term used to describe completion or fulfillment. The last line of the poem echoes the happy ending of fairy-tales. In this case, of course, Piercy is saying that because of women’s subservient position in society, it is often difficult for their lives to have happy endings.
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