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.”
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...
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