Themes and Meanings

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Piercy has regarded the activity of making poetry as such an admixture of the personal and impersonal that it becomes “addictive.” In an essay, “Writers on Writing,” appearing on December 20, 1999, in The New York Times, she stated that her state of mind usually leads her to translate whatever subject she is working on into “molten ore.” She once said that anything can be subject matter for a poem as long as the poet is willing to focus on it intensely enough.

If Piercy is direct and accessible as human being and artist, her work is similarly so to readers. Her themes span a wide range, including civil rights, ecology, feminism, relationships, and religion (particularly her Jewish heritage). Although some critics find influences of Walt Whitman and Denise Levertov in her work, Piercy’s opus and style seem rather uniquely her own.

In the introduction to Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (1982), the anthology that includes “Barbie Doll,” Piercy claims that she wants her poetry to be useful, “simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for themto give voice to something in the experience of a life. . . .” Somewhat ironically, “Barbie Doll” originally appeared in a volume of poems titled To Be of Use. Written in 1970, many of the poems reflect ideas having to do with feminist consciousness: sexual, political, and professional. Within that context, “Barbie Doll” emerges as terse commentary about society’s stereotypical expectations for females, and what happens if the authentic self is bypassed.

It is possible for the reader to discover a dual movement in each stanza of “Barbie Doll,” the first section describing situational circumstances, the final two lines indicating their consequences. Hence, in stanza 1, “this girlchild” comes into a world where things exist “as usual” for female children. However, later, when “a classmate” observes her unattractive nose and legs, the “magic” of pubescence is under attack.

Stanza 2 develops the girl’s positive qualities. However, while she is apologetic, those around her see her presumably physical flaws as who she is, not just something she has. In lines 10 and 11 (“She went to and fro apologizing./ Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs”), the reader notes the use of functional ambiguity, almost simultaneously allowing more than a single interpretation of the lines. Line 9 closes the preceding statement with a period. Lines 10 and 11 are each one-line declarations also closing with a period. Without the presence of transitional words or even comma breaks, the reader may ask whether the young girl is apologizing for her talents or for her large nose and legs? Is her anatomy truly offensive or only perceived by her as such?

In stanza 3, the maturing female acquires advice that seems to combine useful behaviors (exercise, diet) with those more typical of what society expects from women, at least in 1970. Unfortunately, the poem’s subject finds difficulty keeping up the pace. Human beings wear out when they cannot discover or be themselves. Thus the last two lines of the stanza record the nameless girl’s final decision. Unable to cope, she chooses suicide, expressed in a metaphoric amputation of nose and legs, and makes a final oblation of her inadequacies.

With her death (stanza 4), “everyone” is finally satisfied. Sadly, it is too late for the woman to enjoy their praise; equally sad is the onlookers’ response since it is not for the loss of an authentic human being but rather for a stunted life ultimately fulfilled: “Consummation at last.” “This girlchild” has paid a high price...

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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to achieve cosmetic, doll-like attractiveness, but at last she has a name. It is “Barbie Doll.” If this tragic ending were not enough, the poet suggests that the “happy ending” is available to “every woman” willing to travel a similar path.

Piercy offers the reader, in minimalist, almost clinical third-person narration, what may happen to women who accept or fail to transcend their objectification by society. In other poems Piercy revisits this theme using even more powerful images, greater length, and personal voice. “Barbie Doll” constitutes a useful doorway to Piercy’s work and to women’s issues expressed in twentieth century poetry. In case readers imagine that this issue has become obsolete, they may visit any toy store to find Barbie dolls still occupying shelf space. Dressed for the third millennium, their presence still poses this question: Is business for women still “as usual”?

Themes

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Obedience
“Barbie Doll” symbolically describes the inherently destructive nature of patriarchy. A system of social organization in which male prerogative is the ruling principle, patriarchy demands women’s obedience to men. Historically, this obedience has been externally manifest through law; for example, until the twentieth century women had been denied voting privileges in the United States. But patriarchy also exhibits its power through the shaping of mind and self-image. A “good” woman is one who conforms to patriarchal expectations: she is feminine, domestic, pretty, and accommodating. When you are not these things, as the girlchild in Piercy’s poem is not, you will be punished. Society will shun you, you will be judged a freak, and your own strengths (e.g., the girlchild’s physical strength and intelligence) will appear to you as shortcomings because you will not be recognized for them. Piercy’s poem presents a girl of many talents who is worn down by an image of herself created by others which she could not, literally, live up to. In an act of “self” sacrifice, she cut off her nose and legs, those parts of her which did not conform to how a “beautiful” woman should look. This act of mutilation echoes the mutilation other women endure in tyrannically patriarchal societies. In parts of lower equatorial Africa, for example, young girls are forced to have “clitorectomies,” procedures which medically remove the clitoris. This deprives the woman of sexual pleasure, and is a constant reminder that her only value is as a childbearing machine for the man who will own her. In the West, eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are consequences women suffer in attempting to conform to the ideal of the Barbie body. In “Barbie Doll” the girlchild fulfills the patriarchal prescription for obedience by destroying herself. She perpetuates patriarchal power in death by being transformed into someone she could not be in life.

Sex Roles
“Barbie Doll” speaks to the destructive influences of rigid sex roles in modern society, and how women, especially, have been socialized into making their bodies and behavior conform to those roles. We see this socialization at work when the “girlchild” is “presented dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.” Taught from early childhood that a woman should be pretty, intellectually passive, and domestic, the girlchild is apologetic for being none of these. Society, however, offers her compensatory strategies: she is urged to “play coy, / exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle.” This was too much for the girlchild and, as a result of her inability to please those who want her to be someone else, she grows to loathe herself and finally destroys herself in an act of sacrifice, “cut[ting] off her nose and her legs / and offer[ing] them up.” The irony of the last lines of the poem, when the undertaker constructs a woman the girlchild could never be, suggests that societal expectations for sex roles transcend death itself and that, fight as they may against such repressive stereotyping, women will always lose. The moral of Piercy’s parable is in the reader’s response. The lesson is contained in the audience’s outrage at the ways in which women have been (and continue to be) forced to conform to an ideal of femininity—often in ways antithetical to who they are as human beings. Piercy would have her readers take their rage at the poem’s last line as a spur to action.

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