Themes and Meanings
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,322 words.)