Feminist Reading of “Barbie Doll”

“Barbie Doll,” a poem written by Marge Piercy in 1936, clearly delivers strong feminist views about the pressures and standards women are forced to live with. With a depressing tone, the poem describes a young girl’s life beginning with her birth and ending with her ironic death. The poem progresses and tells how the pressures of being a woman affect the girl’s life and influence her actions.

Opening with the girl’s uneventful and normal birth, the poem begins delivering feminist views. As a young child, the girl was “presented dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy,” culture encroaching on her life and molding her to become a socially well-accepted woman. These toys were meant to prepare her for the expectations she would later meet in life, expectations that a woman should raise children, take care of babies, feed her family, do the laundry, complete household chores, and look beautiful at the same time. This first stanza ends with the girl’s puberty years and the realization of her society’s standards of beauty as she is told of the presence of her “great big nose and fat legs.”

Growing up with tools to help prepare her for what’s to come, the girl is overcome with this new standard. Although she was healthy, intelligent, and even strong, “she went to and fro apologizing” for everyone else looked past her true talents and could only see “a fat nose on thick legs.” Her beauty and appearance became the main focus, masking her inner personality and confusing her motives and actions.
As her society presses on her, the girl is given confusing instructions. “She was advised to play coy, / exhorted to come hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.” Advised to watch what she eats and to exercise to reduce her size and sculpt her body to become more visually appealing, “her good nature wore out” as her focus was diverted. The child began to learn that her culture was more occupied with her appearance than what she accomplished or how she acted and that to become accepted she must conform to people’s expectations.

The author begins to end the poem with an extreme solution to the girl’s predicament and describes her suicide with euphemism. Fed up with her inability to please others because of her unattractive qualities, “she cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up.” Overwhelmed with goals, advice, and tasks to better herself for her society, the girl became obsessed with her appearance and no longer took time to truly better her actions, her nature, and herself. Even in death she cannot please until she is changed. Before being displayed in her casket, the mortician paints her face, changes her nose, and dresses her in a nightie, fit to please the public. It is only after these changes that people ask, “Doesn’t she look pretty?” taking in the standards that she has finally met, standards that they constantly pressed her with, standards that she could not meet in life. Finally, the girl is accepted, although it is not quite a happy ending. If not for the common pressure on females to present themselves to the public with attractive features, the girl may have remained herself, healthy and intelligent, and had not let the search for acceptance drive her to her unfortunate end.

Scouring the entire poem, the reader will not find a name for the girl. This motion suggests that the author feels this is a common situation that constantly presses on females, especially young girls. Social standards and expectations mold women to become Barbie dolls, fake perfection. They are raised, taught, and advised to submit to superficial values and become what others would like to see of them. Piercy shows through her poem “Barbie Doll” the destruction of women through the application of false standards and creates the ironic and dismal story of this girl to portray her feminist views.