The Poem

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Contemporary poet Marge Piercy published a twenty-five line, open-form narrative poem titled “Barbie Doll.” Four stanzas provide the reader with a brief tale of a nameless “girlchild” whose life, markedly influenced by others’ opinions, comes to a sad and premature end.

“This girlchild was born as usual,” the poem begins. The little girl receives ostensibly appropriate gifts: dolls, miniature home appliances, some makeup. Later, “in the magic of puberty,” a schoolmate comments unflatteringly on her appearance, noting her “great big nose and fat legs.”

From the second stanza the reader learns about the young adolescent’s intelligence, physical prowess, and sexual drive. She appears to be healthy, strong, and capable, but she ignores these attributes, instead going “to and fro apologizing.” “Everyone” sees her as only “a fat nose on thick legs.”

As she matures, she receives counsel from others. The third stanza lists behaviors aimed at promoting her happiness and success. In time, her natural goodness breaks down like a worn-out automobile part. Finally, as an adult, she permanently rids herself of her perceived inadequacies by means of a sacrificial offering.

In the final stanza, the reader discovers the now-deceased woman displayed in her casket. She has been artificially fabricated by an undertaker, with a “turned-up putty nose,/ dressed in a pink and white nightie.” Onlookers find her “pretty.” The final two lines of the poem resolve the narrative: “Consummation at last./ To every woman a happy ending.”

Forms and Devices

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No direct mention of a Barbie doll is made in the poem. However, the reader may connect the title with the piece as a key to subsequent interpretation, perhaps noting also the urinating doll described in the first stanza and the corpse in the last.

Each of the free-verse stanzas contains relatively short lines and conversational diction. End rhyme is absent, but the reader can locate internal assonance and alliteration with relative ease. Iambs and anapests sustain a melodic rhythm throughout the poem. Not only relevant to poetic form, these “upbeat” accents provide ironic contrast to the poem’s serious content.

Uses and omissions of traditional punctuation marks and capitalization are commonplace in modern poetry. “Barbie Doll” is no exception. Reading the poem aloud demonstrates how these devices, along with the enjambed lines, support emphases and ironies.

Repetition of words, such as the initial “and” in lines 2,3, and 4, suggests a childlike voice or perhaps boredom. In later stanzas, certain morphological structures (past participle endings throughout the poem: “presented,” “tested,” “possessed,” “advised,” “exhorted,” “offered,” “displayed”) convey a tone of formality and detachment, as though one were reading a case history or clinical report.

Piercy’s diction also highlights relative degrees of significance. For example, “dolls that did pee-pee” and “wee lipsticks” sound less important than “the magic of puberty” and the list of qualities that follow in stanza 2. The deceased appears in the final stanza with “turned-up putty nose,/dressed in a pink and white nightie” and looking “pretty.” These descriptors—“putty,” “pink,” “pretty”—markedly contrast in both sound and sense with the penultimate line, “Consummation at last.”

At least three more poetic devices help readers derive meaning from the experience of “Barbie Doll.” First, the simile in stanza 3 compares the individual’s “good nature,” something that is a part of human development and useful to one’s self, with a “fan belt,” something that is mechanical and useful to—also used by—others. Second, “nose and legs,” a synecdoche for the whole body if not the whole person, develops from an initial observation of a trait in stanza 1, to an image of diminished identity in stanza 2, and finally to a symbol of total inadequacy...

(This entire section contains 403 words.)

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in stanza 3. Third, the last line of the poem constitutes a striking irony as the “happy ending” brings this bitter fairy tale to a close not only for the hapless subject of the poem but also for “every woman.”

Historical Context

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In her essay, “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties,” originally published in Partisan Review and later reprinted in Part-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Marge Piercy describes the social pressures exerted on women to conform in mid-twentieth century America, claiming that those who did not were labeled “sick.” Piercy writes, “If you wanted something you couldn’t have easily or that other people did not want or wouldn’t admit to wanting, if you were angry, if you were different, strange, psychic, emotional, intellectual, political, double-jointed: you were sick, sick, sick.” Commenting on the demands to physically conform, she notes that women’s clothes were meant to accentuate breasts and hips while simultaneously “squashing” any parts of the body, such as the stomach, which might stick out. Piercy’s mother bought her a girdle when she was twelve years old, telling her that she “was now a woman.” Images of restraint are common in Piercy’s writing about her childhood and adolescence, as is her anger at the pain such restraint caused. “Women must accustom themselves to a constant state of minor pain, binding themselves in a parody of the real body to be constantly ‘attractive’ …. We didn’t have bodies then, we had shapes. We were the poor stuff from which this equipment carved the feminine.” Piercy’s anger at the ways in which ideas of beauty destroyed women’s self-confidence and enslaved them to male desire is evident in the cynical and bitter irony of “Barbie Doll,” which symbolically tells the story of a woman who could not resist, or accommodate, society’s demands. Of late 1950s America, Piercy says that “Even the notion of acceptable beauty was exceedingly limited and marred a whole generation of women who grew up knowing it (training in self-hatred) and a whole generation of men who felt they were entitled to it, and any actual woman not resembling the few idols was very second best: or Everyman has the right to the exclusive possession of Marilyn Monroe.”

In 1959 when Piercy was twenty-three years old, Mattel created and sold the first Barbie doll. Named after Barbara, the daughter of the founders of Mattel Toys (Ruth and Elliot Handler), Barbie was the first doll with an adult body to appear in America. She was a doll of idealized proportions but with no genitals or nipples. This allowed the doll to be feminine and sexual but non-offensive at the same time. The Handlers claimed they got the idea while watching their growing daughter begin to imitate adult conversation and behavior. They wanted to give their daughter (and potential consumers) a doll that would represent the teenager she and other children would become. Special attention was given to Barbie’s outfits, which were designed to appeal simultaneously to a young girl’s idea of teenage independence and fun and a parent’s idea of wholesomeness. The original Barbie had a tennis dress, a bathing suit, a ballerina outfit, a wedding dress, and a football game outfit, encompassing all of the (gendered) roles of a conventional suburban, middle-class American life. By playing with Barbie, young girls learned what was expected of them. They were given the illusion of freedom, of inventing themselves through the many Barbie costumes. As the country changed in the 1960s, however, so did Barbie. Her facial features were softened, along with her skin tone, and she was given a new hairstyle—a bubblecut—to reflect the changing times. In the 1970s Barbie changed yet again. Now Barbie’s bright blue eyes looked directly ahead, signaling an assertive, confident woman who makes her own decisions. The sexual revolution and women’s liberation helped to create a new image of what girls could be. Barbie has continued to “evolve” along with society. Mattel has put out a number of different Barbies to reflect those changes. Their stable of dolls has included Betsy Ross Barbie (to commemorate the bicentennial) Twist and Turn Barbie, Color Magic Barbie, Action Adventure Barbie, Francie (an African- American Barbie), and a host of other Barbies meant to reflect the changing values of American society and the opportunities available to women.

Literary Style

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A narrative poem written in free verse [verse having irregular meter, or rhythm that is not metrical], “Barbie Doll” can be read as a parable of what often happens to women in a patriarchal society. Parables are short narratives with a moral. Wellknown parables are found in religious texts such as the Bible. The moral of Piercy’s poem also functions as a warning: it urges readers to be aware of the ways in which society shapes our (gendered) identities and urges women not to compare themselves to idealized notions of feminine beauty or behavior.

Piercy’s diction is occasionally archaic. That is, she uses words and grammatical constructions which we would not use today, for example “girlchild,” “that did pee-pee”, etc. By weaving these archaisms into a story told in contemporary language, the speaker achieves an effect of timelessness, suggesting that the instance of modern women modeling themselves after Barbie dolls is only the latest in the history of women’s oppression.

Piercy employs irony to drive her point home. Irony, which comes from the Greek word “eiron,” refers to the way in which a speaker “hides” or in some way understates what she really means. The end of Piercy’s poem is ironic because the only thing that is consummated is the “girlchild’s” death. When the speaker wishes “every woman a happy ending,” she is actually expressing disgust at what has happened to the girlchild and what regularly happens to women who have been socialized to make men’s desires their own.

Compare and Contrast

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1959: Mattel Toys introduces the first Barbie Doll.

1966: Francie, Barbie's "mod" cousin, is introduced in a polka-dotted top and gingham bikini bottom.

1967: African-American Francie "Barbie" is introduced.

1976: Barbie is given a place in "America's Time Capsule" at the nation's bicentennial celebration.

1971: Discarding any submissive undertones, Barbie's eyes, once adverted in a side-glance, now look straight ahead.

1975: During the Winter Olympics, Barbie is marketed abroad as the athlete of the year, appearing as a swimmer, skier, and skater, with a gold medal draped around her neck.

1982: "Punk" Barbie is released.

1985: "Day to Night" Barbie, Mattel's version of the yuppie lifestyle, is released. She has everything from modern office equipment (a tiny calculator) to an evening gown designed for the night out on the town.

1986: "Astronaut" Barbie is released. 1988: "Dr. Barbie" is released.

1990: Mattel sponsors the "Barbie Summit" in New York City. Thirty-nine children from around the world meet and discuss world hunger, environmental degradation, and war and peace.

1995: "Karaoke" Barbie is released.

1993: Barbie sales reach $1 billion in 1993. She and related products account for 34 percent of Mattel's overall sales.

1997: Mattel announces plans to give Barbie a more realistic figure and tone down the makeup. The new Barbie will reportedly have a wider waist, slimmer hips and a smaller bustline, and will be phased in gradually.

Media Adaptations

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Marge Piercy has her own website: http://www.capecod.net/~tmpiercy/index.html

A compilation of essays about the Barbie doll's cultural significance can be found at this web site: http://www.dolliedish.com/barbie/onbarbie.html

For another point of view on how Barbie has been marketed, examine Mattel's own website for Barbie: http://www.barbie.com/

In 1976 Watershed Tapes released a cassette of Piercy reading her poems, At the Core.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill and Bryan S. Turner, eds., Dictionary of Sociology, London: Penguin, 1984. Doherty, Patricia, Marge Piercy: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Duhamel, Denise, Kinky, Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 1997.

Edut, Ophira, ed., Adios, Barbie, Seattle: Seal Press, 1998.

Peabody, Richard and Lucinda Ebersole, eds., Mondo Barbie, New York: St. Martins Press, 1993.

Perrin, Robert, '"Barbie Doll' and 'G.I. Joe': Exploring Issues of Gender," English Journal, Vol. 88, January, 1999, pp. 83-86.

Piercy, Marge, The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, New York: Knopf, 1978.

Shands, Kerstin W., The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy, Wesport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.

Showalter, Elaine, "The Femininst Critical Revolution," in Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Strohmeyer, Sarah, Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession, Norwich, VT: New Victoria Publishers, 1997.

Walker, Sue, ed., Critical Essays on Marge Piercy, West-port, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2000.

For Further Study
Lord, M.G., Forever Barbie, William Morrow and Co.: New York, 1994. Lord's examination of Barbie's historical impact on U.S. culture and consumer society is the most complete published thus far. Lord provides a detailed examination of Barbie's "roots" and traces her changes through the latter half of the twentieth century.

McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed., The Barbie Chronicles, New York: Touchstone Books, 1999. This anthology collects essays and poems about the plastic icon at the 40th anniversary of her creation. The best essays in this collection discuss Barbie as seen through the lenses of sexuality, gender, and race.

Piercy, Marge, Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982. This collection of interviews, essays, and reviews provides a first-hand account of Piercy's involvement with the women's movement and her views on her own, as well as others', poetry.

Varaste, Christopher, Face of the American Dream: Barbie Doll 1959-1971, Grantsville,MD: Hobby House Press, 1999. This book is a fresh look at the early Barbie dolls as "time capsules of the past" that mirror popular culture. The fashion trends, make-up and hairstyles of the 60s are embodied in photographs of vintage Barbie dolls. Actual advertisements for beauty products are shown to document the fashionable trends of the period. The author points out the revolutionizing influences on the fashions and selects dolls that perfectly embody the various styles, giving us a first hand look at the changing American Dream.

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