In Barbie Doll, Marge Piercy tells the short but upsetting tale of a young girl who did not fit society’s harsh standards. Through this poem, Piercy uses diction and metaphor to convey a strong feminist message that there are harsh standards imposed on women by society, which can be compared to symbols centered around gender from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
To begin, the first line of the poem identifies the subject as the “girlchild,” both words girl and child possessing connotations of innocence. The typical rhetoric of patriarchal societies tends to infantilize women, to make them smaller or younger, as if women do not age or grow; calling women “baby” as a term of endearment exemplifies this tendency. It is evident from just the second word of the poem that Piercy’s use of diction is well executed. The lines that follow continue the innocent, childlike nature of a girl who was “born as usual,” meaning she was interested in what is usually assigned to girls like “dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.” The dolls that pretend to urinate highlight society’s emphasis on a woman’s role as a mother, but women are, of course, so much more than just their capabilities to be mothers. Yet, a such a young age, that is what women are reduced to. This is reminiscent of Nightwood character Robin, who not only rejected her role as a mother to Guido jr. but her imitation of a mother to the doll she and Nora shared. Robin was not interested in a life as a woman according to society’s standards, which was evident in her masculine dress and especially in her violent attack on the doll. It is worth noting that again Piercy is drawing attention to the stress of smallness in what the girlchild presented by use of words like “miniature” and “wee.” The lipsticks are also described as being of a “cherry” color, which could be playing on the sexual connotation tied with cherries. Too often, girls are hyper-sexualized at very young ages; for example, little girls are deterred from wearing lipstick because it appears as if they are “sexy.” Though the thought of this is appalling, so much of the expectations but on women are.
Later, the girl is described as intelligent, strong, sexually driven, and possessive of a sharp mind, all attributes typically associated with men. She was “wrong” from the start, much like Robin was as a creature of the night, of otherness. The girl in the poem was “healthy,” yet she was seen as fat by her classmates, which is all too familiar in a society built on the judgement of a woman’s appearance. She was again reduced in a way that a man never would. Applying this to Robin, perhaps in the world she lived in, dressing as a man was Robin’s way of breaking through, of rebelling these societal expectations. While Robin took this approach of crossdressing, the girl in Barbie Doll is told that she should smile more and diet, methods of which involve the girl changing to society instead of society changing to accommodate her. Following these lines, the speaker begins a tonal shift with the lines “her good nature wore out / like a fan belt.” The audience begins to see a break here from the speaker’s infantile, Barbie-like descriptions; what could be more opposite from Barbie than a fan belt, a car piece that stereotypically, men would know about. Along those lines, an actual fan belt is designed to minimize friction with a car’s engine, much like women are supposed to be “coy” and “come on hearty,” as girl was advised to act. Fan belts also run tirelessly inside a car, which is comparable to how women are imagined as tireless machines, especially as mothers. Obviously, these standards are outlandish, which is perhaps why Piercy has the girl “cut off her nose and her legs,” to emphasize the absurdity.
Finally, in the last stanza, the girl dies, presumably because she cut off her legs. She lies on satin, possibly chosen because satin has a sensual, sexual connotation. She’s covered in makeup and a fake nose, how society truly wishes to see her. Even in her death, she is “dressed in a pink and white nightie,” continuing the sexualize infant like girl society fetishizes. She looks pretty to those around her, which is “consummation at last.” In a way, this makes Robin of Nightwood seem more inspiring because though she abandoned her responsibilities and those who loved her, she played by her own rules; she did not fall victim to ridiculous norms that society instills in women like the girl in the poem did. Overall, Robin lived for herself and only herself, a principle many could respect, especially women. “To every woman a happy ending” says the poem speaker ironically, but Robin had an actual happy ending because she was finally her true, pure self. Comparing her character with that of Piercy’s, it is clear that Barbie Doll masterfully combines the power of diction and metaphor to convey a scary yet truthful message about the standards women are held to, a message that unfortunately resonates with women 82 years after Nightwood was written and 47 years after Barbie Doll. Evidently, there is still work to do.
Barbie Doll by Marge Piercy, 1971
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.
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. Faber & Faber, 2015.