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

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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...

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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 hands (“manual dexterity”) or who has “abundant sexual drive” is considered to be unfeminine, as these qualities are also normally associated with maleness and masculinity.

Because she did not conform to social expectations, Piercy’s girlchild did not “consummate” the process of socialization. Because she could not “play coy, / … come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle,” the girlchild suffered intense emotional conflict, which eventually resulted in her taking her own life. The poem is not clear as to the girlchild’s emotional state when she “cut off her nose and legs.” We can read the statement that “Her good nature wore out / like a fan belt” to mean that she became angry and killed herself in disgust, or we can read the lines to mean that she was exhausted with constantly trying to be something that she was not. She did not, however, make it to adulthood, which means she failed to pass on the expectations that she herself could not meet. The only way that society could ensure that future generations would grow into the gender roles that the girlchild did not would be if the girlchild were not around to be a negative role model. When she did “offer” herself up, the undertaker, symbolically representing the destructive power of patriarchal desire, was ready to transform her, to have her conform to the gendered role she could not inhabit during her life.

Piercy’s poem symbolizes what happens to young women in real life. In her essay “klaus barbie, and other dolls i’d like to see” from the anthology Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write about Body Image and Identity, Susan Jane Gilman writes that “We urban, Jewish, Black, Asian and Latina girls … realize that if you didn’t look like Barbie, you didn’t fit in. You were less beautiful, less valuable, less worthy. If you didn’t look like Barbie, companies would discontinue you. You simply couldn’t compete.” Piercy herself, an urban Jewish woman and a burgeoning intellectual, did not fit in. Before she became politically active in the 1960s Piercy was a part of the Barbie-ized culture of 1950s America. It was not just men who controlled women, though. Male desire permeated society. Piercy writes that “Women policed each other in the fifties with a special frenzy, being totally convinced nothing but death and madness lay outside the nuclear family and the baby-doll-mommy roles. How could we have believed that when we saw the toll of death and madness inside the roles?” These roles began to expand in the 1960s as more opportunities developed for women. Rising female employment offered women economic possibilities, and the sexual revolution gave them “permission” to seek sexual satisfaction outside the bounds of marriage. Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 blockbuster book, Sex and the Single Girl, described the “new woman” as a sexy, financially independent, upwardly mobile professional who made her own decisions, and Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique argued strongly for equal rights for women. In 1964 Congress passed Title VII, which banned gender discrimination in employment and helped create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency which addresses issues of gender equality and discrimination in the workplace. Piercy herself embodied America’s cultural changes, as she divorced her first husband partly because he did not take her writing seriously and held conventional notions of how a wife should behave.

As a result of the changes in American society, gender roles for women have expanded greatly since the 1950s. These changes have been tracked by the Barbie doll, which literally has had scores of incarnations, including Francie the African- American Barbie, and “Punk” Barbie, a 1980s doll. More recently Mattel has announced plans to give Barbie a makeover. She will have a “less graduated profile,” in response to children’s interest in more realism in their toys.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.

Criticizing Both Women and the Society They Live In

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In her essay “Rethinking the Seventies: Women Writers and Violence,” Elaine Showalter says women writers in the 1970s were experiencing the beginning of an exciting new phase where they “seemed at last able to express anger and passion, to confront their own raging emotions….” Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” is a highly polished and ironic poem that perfectly demonstrates Showalter’s thesis. In “Barbie Doll,” Piercy scathingly condemns contemporary expectations placed on women concerning their appearance. The view she expresses in the poem is a feminist one, consistent with the political views she expresses in her numerous poetry collections, novels, and essays, particularly those views that condemn society’s attitudes towards women.

“Barbie Doll” tells the story of a girl who grows up to find out she does not look quite as she should. Because she wants the approval of others she attempts to compensate for her imperfections in other areas. She soon grows tired of her efforts and in desperation chops off the offending parts of her body, taking her life as she does. In the hands of the undertaker, however, she finally achieves what she could not in life: perfection and hence approval.

The apt title given to the poem points to the central and controlling device of irony and the symbolic associations between the doll and the women in the poem. The Barbie Doll, more than being a favorite with adolescent girls, is a cultural icon of femininity that carries with it complex associations of ideal beauty and desirability. Piercy wishes to expose the destructiveness behind such ideals by showing the extent to which many women will go to achieve them.

Told through the third person point of view in four stanzas of free verse, the poem delineates the far-reaching consequences of a women’s concern with her appearance as measured by an external ideal. The use of the third person point of view reinforces the increasing sense of alienation and selfloathing the woman in the poem experiences towards herself because she does not conform to this ideal. In the first stanza, Piercy shows the early indoctrination of young girls into feminine stereotypes. The second stanza conveys society’s concern with women’s appearance, in general, while the third stanza shows the extent to which women will go to conform to an ideal. The fourth stanza provides a concluding ironic twist showing how the woman in the poem achieves in death what she could not in life.

In the first line of the first stanza the poet introduces the subject of her poem as the “girlchild.” Distinguishing her only by gender serves to objectify her, and the fact that she is “born as usual” suggests there is nothing out of the ordinary about the birth of this girl. The enjambment between lines one and two, however, clarifies that “as usual” also means she is greeted into the world as girls usually are with presents of “dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stove and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy”. The images of “dolls,” “stoves,” “irons,” serve to show the early indoctrination of girls into the woman’s world of motherhood and domesticity, while the image of “wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” begins her introduction into the guileful art of femininity.

In the fourth line the poem’s focus shifts from childhood to “the magic of puberty.” The use of the word “magic” to describe this period of the girl’s life suggests the powerful and extraordinary nature of the emotional and hormonal changes that transform her from a girl into a young woman capable of bearing children. However, the magic of puberty is destroyed for her when a classmate tells her she has “a great big nose and fat legs.”

In the second stanza the young woman has become so preoccupied with her imperfections that she is unable to see her positive qualities. Although she is “healthy, tested intelligent / possessed strong arms and a back” and even possesses “abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity,” she is so conditioned to be over-concerned with her appearance that these positive qualities fail to have any value. Because she only sees her imperfections and believes she has no value because of them, she goes “to and fro apologizing.” So obsessed is she with her imperfections that she begins to believe that what “everyone saw” when they looked at her was “a fat nose on thick legs.”

By collapsing the images of “a great big nose and fat legs” into the comic image of “a fat nose on thick legs,” Piercy uses synecdoche [a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole, or the whole stands for the part], to draw attention both to her use of irony and to the sad fact that the young woman can only see herself in the terms of some artificial ideal.

In the third stanza the woman is “advised to play coy / exhorted to come on hearty / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.” She is pressured into trying to mold herself into what she is not and to compensate for her shortcomings. The verbs “advised” and “exhorted” suggest the insistence placed on the woman to please others, particularly men, while the advice to “play coy” and to “come on hearty” point to the artificial means women are encouraged to use to make themselves desirable.

As an artifice of desire that measures itself against an impossible ideal, the female body requires endless maintenance to shape it for public acceptance and idealization, and this woman fails to shape herself into the image of what is desirable. Eventually she tires of her efforts and breaks down. As the poet puts it, her “‘good nature’ wore out / like a fan belt.”

The poet’s use of simile [a figure of speech comparing two unlike things, often introduced by “like” or “as”] shows the extent to which the woman has accepted society’s objectification of her body. Like the fan belt in a car that wears out and is discarded, the woman wears herself out in her attempts to perfect herself. Her body becomes an alien thing. Because of its imperfections it has no value, “so she cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up.” Since she is the sum of her imperfect parts, “a fat nose on thick legs,” by offering them up she is in fact sacrificing her life. The image of the woman cutting off parts of her body points to a growing popularity among women of using cosmetic surgery to perfect their appearances. More generally, it also suggests the history of abuse that women have inflicted on themselves in the name of beauty.

In the final stanza the woman lies in a casket made up for public display. Her face has been “painted on” by the undertaker’s “cosmetics” and her “putty” nose has been “turned up.” She lies on “satin” dressed “in a pink and white nightie.” Everyone who comes to see her says, “Doesn’t she look pretty?” Ironically, she achieves “consummation at last.” “Consummation” in this context means literally to complete through perfection. The woman achieves in life what she could not in death.

The last two lines of the poem move beyond ironic expression and are rich in implication and scathing in intent. Piercy satirizes the traditional ending to many conventional fairy tales that conclude with the female protagonist living happily ever after with the consummation of marriage. Piercy subverts the traditional implication of sexual consummation to consummation in death. By sacrificing herself the woman finally receives the approval she had always wanted from others. The last line moves from the specific woman to women in general as Piercy concludes her poem: “to every woman a happy ending.” The irony is clear. The woman lying in her casket is made up to look just like a Barbie doll; even her nose has been turned up. The woman, however, no longer bears any resemblance to the person she was. She is made-up and false, and, just like a Barbie doll, lifeless and perfect.

In “Barbie Doll,” Piercy has found the perfect vehicle to express her anger and to criticize both women and the society they live in. By equating the woman in the poem with the image of the Barbie Doll and by using irony as a controlling device within the poem, the poet shows both the insidious way in which women are objectified as well as their own cooperative part in the process.

Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.


Critical Overview