Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Barbie Doll"
Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" dramatizes a "girldchild" and her predicament in four free versagraphs.
(Please note: "Versagraph" is a term I coined; it is the conflation of "verse paragraph," the primary unit of free verse poetry.)
Marge Piercy's feminist poem is taking to task the cultural stereotype of the perfect woman, suggesting that the patterns of behavior and body image touted by society cause little girls to kill themselves when they are unable to measure up to an impossible standard.
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
Reading of Piercy's "Barbie Doll"
First Versagraph: "This girlchild was born as usual"
In the first versagraph, the speaker announces that this young woman was born naturally; then she played with the usual dolls that were being offered for her generation. She also played with toy household appliances. By the time she reached puberty, however, she was confronted with the accusing words of fellow student, who told her she had a "big nose and fat legs."
Second Versagraph: "She was healthy, tested intelligent"
Next, the speaker claims that the girl enjoyed good health, and she was smart. She was even strong; she "possessed strong arms and back." And she skillfully performed physical tasks and mental tasks, such as those required by school assignments. But she had become obsessed with her big nose and legs, so she "went to and fro apologizing" for her unlovely qualities.
Third Versagraph: "She was advised to play coy"
Apparently, someone encouraged the girl "play coy" and to "come on hearty"—two mutually exclusive acts, which must have confused the girl. She was also encouraged to watch what she ate and to get exercise to reduce the size of her fat legs, no doubt.
But she was also encouraged to "smile and wheedle." More confusion. The poor girl did not know what she was supposed to do or be. So she went from being a healthy, capable young girl to a confused, depressed adolescent, and then she commits suicides.
The speaker dramatizes the suicide by metaphorically likening her act to "cut[ting] off her nose and her legs / and offer[ing] them up." This surreal act works well, because it does not matter how the girl actually committed the act of suicide; she did it because of her big nose and legs. In order to cut off her nose and legs, she had to sacrifice her whole body and mind.
Fourth Versagraph: "In the casket displayed on satin she lay"
In the fourth versagraph, the speaker describes the young woman as she looks in her casket. Of course, the legs are no problem there, since a casket viewing entails only the upper torso, but the nose has been reconstructed by the mortician, and he has applied make-up and dressed her in "a pink and white nightie."
The mortician's magic has transformed the poor girl's physical encasement into a specimen of which she might been proud and, no doubt, have been able to live in quite happily. And those people who view her comment, "Doesn't she look pretty?"
The speaker is outraged by the hypocrisy, as she likely is thinking that if the girl had been told she was pretty while she was still alive, perhaps she would still be alive. The speaker expresses her disgust by sarcastically exclaiming, "Consummation at last. / To every woman a happy ending."
A Statement on Superficial Beauty
Societal roles for women and the standards for feminine physical bodies offer a great lot of fodder for feminist complaint. The speaker assumes that if the poor suicide in the poem had only been made to realize that feminine beauty includes inner mental strength along with physical health, not the impossible shapes and behaviors that too often are foisted upon growing girls by a society obsessed with sex, youth, and artificial beauty, she would not have become so obsessed that she felt the need to kill herself.
The confusing messages that young girls too often take from the culture can lead them astray, and instead of finding their inner beauty and strength they succumb to a superficial standard that leads only to perdition.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes