Analysis of Poem "What Do Women Want? by Kim Addonizio

Updated on February 4, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Kim Addonizio and What Do Women Want?

What Do Women Want? is a direct and transparent poem which focuses on the desire of one particular woman, the speaker, to purchase and wear a red dress, crucial for a true expression of who she really is.

On one level this poem is a straightforward demand for a dress, an item of clothing, albeit one that, because it is red, will attract attention to the wearer out on the everyday streets.

But this literal interpretation just won't do. There's something more to fathom out; issues of gender, politics and relationships lie underneath the surface. The red dress becomes a metaphor, symbolic of the woman's free expression and power.

Kim Addonizio is well known for her controversial, cutting edge poetry which often explores the boundaries between the sexes and focuses on the needs and experiences of females.

'I try to tell the truth about what I see, whether that's in the world or in myself.'

According to one critic she 'doesn't do pretty; beneath her considerable wit is a wickedly sharp edge...'

What Do Women Want? is a question and answer poem, containing the wants of one particular woman who is representing all women. It is a personal declaration of intent. The woman, the speaker, hasn't yet bought the dress but longs to. In this sense the poem is wishful and aspirational - when she finally gets this dress she'll become the woman she always wanted to be.

The ambiguity becomes apparent when the reader asks the question - But is she to become the woman she truly wants to be or is she simply conforming to society's (and men's) idea of what she should be?

Either way, with simple, street language the speaker opens up her heart and proudly declares that, one day, some day, she will become that individual female she always longed to be.

What Do Women Want?

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Analysis of What Do Women Want?

What Do Women Want? starts off with a rhetorical question which could have all manner of answers. For example, women might want equality, justice, freedom to be who they want to be. And so on and so forth.

In the poem the speaker, the first person I, narrows her wants down to a single item - a red dress. An item of clothing. No messing about, this person knows what she wants and states clearly so in the very first line.

Not only does she want a red dress but it must fit certain criteria. It must be flimy and cheap - this person doesn't want an expensive model's dress for example, she wants a dress a poor person might buy? Although a red dress would stick out in a crowd, a cheap dress means that she also wants to be part of that same crowd, one of the common people.

Note the repetition. The speaker is desperate to have this dress, reinforcing her need. I want, I want, I want....all in all ten times throughout the poem. This is a loud and persistent ego the speaker has.

And once she does obtain this dress she intends it to stay on for a long time. A very long time. Someone else will have to tear it off her before she gives up on it.

  • Already the reader is being diverted away from the original literal sense. The speaker wants a dress yes, but the dress now begins to represent something else. It could be a symbol of identity, female identity. And together with this comes independence and freedom, because a definite choice will have been made.

More details follow. The dress is to be so tight, it'll be obvious what the shape and content of her body will be. People (men in particular?) will no longer have to use their imaginations, she'll be herself physically, the tight dress will see to that.

Plus, once wearing the dress, she'll be free to walk down an ordinary street, any ordinary street, for she'll be every woman rolled up in one.

  • Note the hardware store and the keys, a symbol of openness. Keys unlock doors, keys are the pass to opportunity, light and alternative worlds. Those donuts cooked by the Wongs might be a day out of date but she won't mind, she'll be fresh and new. The Guerra brothers might handle pig meat but she'll walk past them as someone vital and beyond the mere flesh. She'll be an individual, a special one off.

The crucial repeat occurs in line 16 with I want that red dress bad. There's a hint of impatience. She doesn't want to be ordinary any longer, she has no thoughts or care for anything other than being herself. Perhaps after so many years of oppression, of not being able to express herself, this speaker is finally going to do the right thing.

Towards the end of the poem the red dress does indeed become a vehicle for radical change as the speaker alludes to it as a body suitable for carrying her into what will be a new world. She'll be able to experience the extremes of womanhood now, birth and death, and love.

The speaker is perhaps a little angry. Note the use of goddamned in the penultimate line, reflecting pent up frustration. It's a fitting climax - her identity will be truly established, a crucial issue of vital importance.

But the reader will be aware that throughout the narrative the speaker's wants are not yet satisfied. She hasn't yet found that red dress, that symbol of passion and strong identity, sexuality and confidence.

More Analysis of What Do Women Want?

What Do Women Want? is a single stanza poem of 27 lines of varying length. There is no set regular rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) also differs so this poem is free verse.

Random lines rhyme - backless/guess, through/too, skin/in - but these are more accidents and not part of a regular pattern of rhyme.


Note the words too tight....want to wear....slick snouts.


© 2017 Andrew Spacey


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