Marge Piecy’s “Barbie Doll” Gender Identity in Piercys “Barbie Doll” Dolls often give children their first lessons in what a society considers valuable and beautiful. These dolls often reveal the unremitting pressure to be young, slim, and beautiful in a society which values mainly aesthetics. Marge Piercys “Barbie Doll” exhibits how a girls childhood is saturated with gender-defined roles and preconceived norms for how one should behave. In order to convey her thoughts, the author uses familiar, yet ironic, imagery, as well as uses fluctuating tone in each stanza to better draw attention to the relevant points of her contention. The first four lines of “Barbie Doll” are written in a trite, simplistic tone which represent the normality and basic needs of infancy.
It is at this point in ones life that a child has no ability to deviate from the norm, simply because they have no knowledge of it and are completely influenced by what their parents present them with. The presentation of a doll and an oven, along with lipstick (1-3), ensure that the girl will know exactly which gender role she must be. These lines imitate the rigidity in which sexual and gender roles are defined. The tone of the introductory stanza changes abruptly in line five when the speaker relates “Then, in the magic of puberty, a classmate said/ You have a great big nose and fat legs.” What is particularly ironic is that puberty is referred to as a “magic” time, when really it is a time for emotional crisis within many children as they struggle to develop their autonomy. This line is directed in a candid fashion which digresses from the mildness of the first few lines, rendering it quite more effective than simplistic speech.
The second stanza of “Barbie Doll” starts off as normal as the first, but easily strays into different meaning. While “She was healthy, tested intelligent” (7) connotes positive aspects of the girl, “possessed strong arms and back/ abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity” connotes an entirely divergent idea. Gender roles always defined the man as”strong” and the woman as “weak,” the man as “skillful with his hands” and the woman as “skillful with a cookie tin,” and finally, the man as the “sexual aggressor” while the woman was the “submissive help-mate.” In lines eight and nine, the girl is identified by the characteristics typically associated with the male gender, something quite unusual and completely opposite that of what line seven implies. “She went to and fro apologizing” (10) conveys that the girl recognizes her traits as disparaging and dishonorable. The last line of the second stanza again changes in tone from simple to forthright with the statement “Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs”(11). This line re-emphasizes the ugliness of not measuring up to the standard of an ideal female, a standard set by society.
Piercy addresses the stereotypical manners that women are pressured to perform in the third stanza when she writes “She was advised to play coy/exhorted to come on hearty/exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle”(12-14). By advising the girl to act enthusiastic in response to a man, starve herself to be thin, fake emotions, and influence men with soft words and flattery, the author makes a general statement about how women were practically forced to be something whether or not they wanted to. The words “coy” and “smile” conjure up images of a false passivity that women must endure, images that help to shape the poem by providing a better view of what the subject experienced. Line fifteen contains a reference to a fan belt, an object that, similarly to a persons “good nature,” will wear out from use and abuse. The change in tone is repeated once again as the author switches from mild lines about personality to a dramatic line in which an analogy is made to represent an internal change in the characters mentality. With the beginning of the last stanza of “Barbie Doll,” the reader can achieve almost a sense of relinquishment as the subject symbolically “..cut off her nose and her legs/ and offered them up.” The reader is led to believe that the girl has come to a realization that she must account for the loneliness and emptiness that she has felt as a result of imitating a false person.
This culmination is her death, an act of her surrendering herself to the pain. With line twentys mention of an “..undertakers cosmetics painted on,” the author paints an image of concealment–the concealment of hurt and anguish suffered when a girl was forced to assimilate into a materialistic society which functions only according to the standards set by its members. Line twenty-one continues the pattern of ironic imagery with a vision of a “putty nose,” something that, along with the cosmetics, helps to conceal reality, and show the falseness of the idealistic standards that society dictates. The “pink and white nightie” (22) symbolizes the supposed demureness of a female by assuming that pink and white are feminine colors. In line twenty-three, people ask “Doesnt she look pretty?” This is yet another example of ironic imagery that the author uses to make the reader visualize the situation and appraise the nonsensical way in which we judge others, regardless of whether or not we are actually seeing deeper than the surface image. The author attempts to evoke pathos in the last two lines of the poem in the same manner that she used to change the tone at the end of each stanza–by using ironic imagery and conflicting, bold statements.
By relating the girls death to “consummation”(24), she invokes a realization in the reader of the completion or culmination of an act. This act is the goal of society to change its inhabitants into “Barbie Dolls.” It wasnt until the girl/subject was dead that anyone considered her pretty, and even then it was not actually her who they were looking at; rather, it was a generated character. Line twenty-five works with the previous line to evoke feelings of pity and reconciliation within the reader as they contemplate the severity of the pressures that society can produce.