Barbie Doll Essays and Criticism
by Marge Piercy

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Barbie Doll as a Symbolic Story About Women's Socialization in a Patriarchal World

(Poetry for Students)

Marge Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll,” is a mythic rendering of the destructive ways in which women have been socialized into thinking of their bodies and behavior in relation to a patriarchal ideal. This ideal, represented by Mattel’s popular Barbie doll, is a thin yet curvy body, with symmetrical, perfect facial features. The girlchild in Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” sacrifices her own gifts to fulfill the social dictates of patriarchy, a system of social organization based on male privilege. The doll is symbolic of the ways that women themselves have been “plasticized,” turned into creatures who have been riven of their humanity.

After the Barbie doll came out in 1959 many women literally attempted to emulate her look. This was virtually impossible, since Barbie’s body measures the human equivalent of 39-18-33. However, one woman, Cindy Jackson, founder of the Cosmetic Surgery Network, has dedicated her life to trying to achieve a “Barbie look,” putting herself through more than twenty operations. It is not only Barbie’s body that young girls aspire to but Barbie’s life as well. The original Barbie came with a tennis outfit and bathing suit, as well as a wedding dress. She embodied the ideals and values of a middle- class suburban housewife who spent her days at the country club and her afternoons cooking dinner for her husband. To become a Barbie doll is for many girls and young women a dream. For Marge Piercy it is a nightmare. Her poem is a frontal assault on the socialization (for Piercy, “Barbie-ization”) of young girls.

The process of constructing an identity based on gender and the consequences of this construction for women are popular subjects in the sociology of gender. The Dictionary of Sociology lists four primary features: 1) women are ascribed specific feminine personalities and a “gender identity” through socialization; 2) women are often secluded from public activities in industrial societies by their relegation to the private domain of the home; 3) women are allocated to inferior and typically degrading productive activities; 4) women are subjected to stereotypical ideologies which define women as weak and emotionally dependent on men.

Socialization is the process through which human beings learn how to be in the world. They internalize rules—some spoken, some unspoken— and these rules come to form a part of the image we develop about ourselves. “Barbie Doll” addresses the various stages of socialization: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The girlchild is presented with toys—presumably by her family— which help to set expectations for what her interests and behavior should be. Dolls, stoves, irons, and lipstick are all conventional things that little girls, especially in the West, are given to clue them in to societal expectations. This is not an intentional or necessarily coercive process but one which adults themselves have gone through and have come to believe is “natural.” That is, they believe that little girls will enjoy pretending to be a homemaker or a Barbie doll because these are desires with which little girls are born.

The domestic realm has long been a space relegated to women. It is expected that they cook, clean, bear children, and take care of their men, who work and provide for the family. The public realm, the realm of politics, business, war, and large-scale decision-making, belongs to men. Academia, until recently, has also been a male province, as women were not valued for their intelligence. If women taught at all, it was elementary school where teaching was considered closer to baby-sitting, something in which women were considered well-versed. That the girlchild, when she reached adolescence, “tested intelligent” suggests that she was doomed, for such a quality is not valued by a society which considers “smarts” to be the mark of a strong male. Intelligent women present a threat to male power. Similarly, a woman who is good with her...

(The entire section is 2,724 words.)