Marge Piercy chooses the name of a popular child’s toy as the title of her poem, “Barbie Doll;” however, it is readily apparent that she does not intend to write about Barbie, the doll itself. Instead, she uses the material image of a Barbie doll to write about something immateriala culture; a long-established segment of American culture involving the relationship between, and the characteristics of the sexes; a culture which sees the sexes as more different, rather than the same; a culture in which one sex feels superior to and dominates the other; a culture in which the roles are well-defined; and a culture that has grown archaic, and which, no longer enhances but is contrary to the health, happiness, and well-being of at least one-half of the equationthe female persuasion.
“Barbie . . .” is a synecdoche, a metaphor for all women, Anglo and otherwise. And, since Barbie is not a baby, but a miniature adult female, “Doll” is a metaphor for the male-ideal for a woman; a doll, as defined as an “attractive woman,”1 who is “pretty but empty-headed”2, “helpful or obliging,”3 and who embellishes herself so as to be more attractive, is their perfect exemplar.
In the first line of the poem, “this girlchild was born as usual,” and more specifically in the words girlchild and usual, Piercy gives her readers the underlying tone of the speaker, that of, a little sarcastic. The line says implicitly that girls are ordinarynot extraordinary! It’s a line which leads one to query if the opposite is true for the other gender; it is reasonable, in the context of poetry, to surmise that it is discreetly inferred that girls are ordinary and boys are extraordinary, as is the attitude that is introduced at birth byIt’s a girl. It’s a boy!
As early as the first days and weeks of life, the “girlchild” is surrounded by much of which, and that for which, she will eventually be defined. Throughout her life she is given gifts that reinforce the domestic role, the role she will see her mother play, day after day after day; the very role she will one day be expected to play. That archetypical role involves caring for children, and maintenance of home and husband; activities for which she will be presented many opportunities to practice, with her “dolls that did pee pee,” “miniature GE stoves and irons,” “wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy,” and any and all of her toys that represent, exemplify, demonstrate, or are associated and consistent with, the notion of femininity and the female domain. She is a captive audience of the ubiquitous subliminal messages that will subconsciously influence her thoughts, her appearance, and her behavior.
The fantasy world in which the “girlchild” is encouraged to indulge, ill-prepares her for the harsh reality that rears its ugly head when a classmate blurts out, “You have a great big nose and fat legs.” Piercy does not reveal the gender of “the classmate,” at least not directly; she wants to infer that it could be either a boy or a girl, which is consistent with the fact that she chooses not to use the word boychild for a boy, as she does girlchild for a girl. However, in that “the classmate” is not criticized for his or her lack of discretion and insensitivity, “the classmate” by deduction, must in fact, and in the speaker’s mind, be a boy. It makes sense, being that no one openly comes to the girl’s defense or advises her to take an aggressive stance against the insult that is directed toward her. Instead, she goes about apologizing for her physical imperfections as if she is already aware that she’s playing by rules with a double standard. Her obsequious pleas for forgiveness are evidence of her low self-esteem; the low self-esteem that an imperfect child can develop in a society where there is an unrealistic expectation placed on the female sex to achieve the bodily perfection of a Barbie doll.
The “girlchild” is a synecdoche or metaphor, for the entire sexual-female-population, and conversely, the boy “classmate” is likewise for the sexual-male-population. The pubertal child represents all those who do not make the Barbie Doll Sororitythey are rejected for much lesser offenses than that of not having large breasts, and or a tiny waist, and or long shapely legs, and or a flawless complexion. The girls of the Barbie Doll Sorority are pledged for the beauty of their bodies and the loveliness of their physiognomies; it’s an affiliation that can be perceived as one of complicity in the war to subvert women, being that, not only are women scrutinized by the opposite sex, but by their own.
“Everyone saw a fat nose on thick thighs.” Compared to that line, the speaker’s description of the girl seems complimentary, but it is not. She “was healthy” but she was advised to diet and exercise, which leads one to think that “healthy” means heavy. She “possessed strong arms and back” translates into, she had a muscular physique more like that of a man. She “tested intelligent” is a rather curious way to say that someone is smart; it means that she did not give that impression, and or, that she had no common sense, or simply, that no one could explicitly give her credit for being highly intelligent because high intelligence is a characteristic befitting, and subsequently, reserved for boys and men. Her “abundant sexual drive” is relative to her behavior, which is relative to her appeal; it implies that she is driven by an intense biological urge that motivates her to act overly eager and forward, not hard-to-get; behavior tantamount to indiscriminate and promiscuous, and contrary to that which fuels the fire of a man’s desire.
Therein lies the key to why the author chooses to put “manual dexterity” in the same line as “abundant sexual drive.” Piercy could have created another line; after all, the stanza in which this line resides is only five lines, whereas the others are six and seven lines long. Why this grouping of words? “abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.” Because the author intends for “abundant sexual drive” to be more stimulating in conjunction with “manual dexterity.” It’s only one short line but it discreetly says a lot. In other words, it answers the question, for what activity or activities is the girlchild manually dexterous?
The less-than-perfect girlchild does not score highly on the test of desirability to menshe’s not the woman they lust for. So, what’s a girl to do? “She was advised to play coy,” to “smile,” “wheedle,” “coax,” and cajole; behavior which is interpreted as disingenuous, manipulative, and phony. She was advised to act in ways that demean her character, in order to redeem her chance to be a contender for the role for which she has been groomed since day-one of her existence; and, not surprisingly, none of the measures she employed, worked.
Her “good nature,” under the circumstances, did not matter; it did not add to her appeal, her value, or her worthshe had a “big nose and fat legs!” She was not dainty, petite, cute, pretty, beautiful, lovely, voluptuous, or any of “the gender of words or grammatical forms that refer chiefly to females or to things classified as female.”4
The girlchild only had to look in the mirror to be reminded of her inadequacies, and in so doing, she would forevermore have to face the fact that her fanciful life was nevermore. Dejected, she became overwhelmed by despair and “snapped” she cut off her nose despite her face and her legs despite her life. With that act of senseless desperation, she achieved her ultimate goal, but not before she took her last breath. “Everyone thought she looked pretty,” even though her “turned-up” nose was made of putty, and she was dead. Piercy highlights the pathetic irony of the calamitous event in the sarcasm of, “Consummation at Last,” and “To every woman a happy ending.”
Marge Piercy tells a story, succinctly in her poem. The main character is “brought to ruin . . . as a consequence of a tragic flaw.”5 The tragedy that ensues is the drama that the author stages, to speak about a prevailing and repressive attitude, that leads many young girls and women, to engage in extreme, self-destructive, and irrational behavior, in order to achieve the perceived image of physical feminine beauty; the image of the perfect exemplar, the image that is manifest and symbolized by the Barbie Doll.
1. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. P. 409 (definition of doll). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.
2. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. G. and C. Merriam Co., Springfield.
3. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. P. 409 (definition of doll). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.
4. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. P. 502 (definition of feminine). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.
5. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. P. 1434 (definition of tragedy). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.