Modern poet Marge Piercy published a twenty-five line, open-form story poem titled “Barbie Doll.” Four stanzas offer the reader with a brief tale of a nameless “girlchild” whose life, distinctly influenced by others’ opinions, comes to a sad and premature end. “This girlchild was born as usual,” the poem tells. The little girl receives supposedly appropriate gifts: dolls, miniature home appliances, some makeup. Later, “in the wonders of puberty,” a schoolmate comments unflatteringly on her facade, noting her “great big nose and fat legs.” (Cooperman, 2-5) From the second stanza the reader starts to know about the young adolescent’s aptitude, physical prowess, and sexual drive. She seems to be well, strong, and capable, but she ignores these attributes, as an alternative going “to and fro apologizing.” “Everyone” sees her as only “a fat nose on thick legs.” As she matures, she receives counsel from others. The third stanza lists behaviors aimed at promoting her happiness and success. In time, her natural goodness breaks down like a worn-out automobile part. Finally, as an adult, she permanently rids herself of her perceived inadequacies by means of a sacrificial offering. In the final stanza, the reader discovers the now-deceased woman displayed in her casket. She has been artificially fabricated by an undertaker, with a “turned-up putty nose,/ dressed in a pink and white nightie.” Onlookers find her “pretty.” The final two lines of the poem resolve the narrative: “Consummation at last./ To every woman a happy ending.” (Godwin, 27-30) Thesis “Barbie Doll” constitutes a useful doorway to Piercy’s work and to women’s issues expressed in twentieth century poetry. In case readers imagine that this issue has become obsolete, they may visit any toy store to find Barbie dolls still occupying shelf space.
Analysis No direct mention of a Barbie doll is made in the poem. However, the reader may connect the title with the piece as a key to subsequent interpretation, perhaps noting also the urinating doll described in the first stanza and the corpse in the last. Each of the free-verse stanzas contains relatively short lines and conversational diction. End rhyme is absent, but the reader can locate internal assonance and alliteration with relative ease. Iambs and anapests sustain a melodic rhythm throughout the poem. Not only relevant to poetic form, these “upbeat” accents provide ironic contrast to the poem’s serious content. (Godwin, 27-30) Uses and omissions of traditional punctuation marks and capitalization are commonplace in modern poetry. “Barbie Doll” is no exception. Reading the poem aloud demonstrates how these devices, along with the enjambed lines, support emphases and ironies. Repetition of words, such as the initial “and” in lines 2,3, and 4, suggests a childlike voice or perhaps boredom. In later stanzas, certain morphological structures (past participle endings throughout the poem: “presented,” “tested,” “possessed,” “advised,” “exhorted,” “offered,” “displayed”) convey a tone of formality and detachment, as though one were reading a case history or clinical report. (G Michael, 3-9) Piercy’s diction also highlights relative degrees of significance. For example, “dolls that did pee-pee” and “wee lipsticks” sound less important than “the magic of puberty” and the list of qualities that follow in stanza 2. The deceased appears in the final stanza with “turned-up putty nose,/dressed in a pink and white nightie” and looking “pretty.” These descriptors—“putty,” “pink,” “pretty”—markedly contrast in both sound and sense with the penultimate line, “Consummation at last.
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” (G Michael, 3-9) At least three more poetic devices help readers derive meaning from the experience of “Barbie Doll.” First, the simile in stanza 3 compares the individual’s “good nature,” something that is a part of human development and useful to one’s self, with a “fan belt,” something that is mechanical and useful to—also used by—others. Second, “nose and legs,” a synecdoche for the whole body if not the whole person, develops from an initial observation of a trait in stanza 1, to an image of diminished identity in stanza 2, and finally to a symbol of total inadequacy in stanza 3. Third, the last line of the poem constitutes a striking irony as the “happy ending” brings this bitter fairy tale to a close not only for the hapless subject of the poem but also for “every woman.” (Wainer, 17-21) Themes and Meanings Piercy has regarded the activity of making poetry as such an admixture of the personal and impersonal that it becomes “addictive.” In an essay, “Writers on Writing,” appearing on December 20, 1999, in The New York Times, she stated that her state of mind usually leads her to translate whatever subject she is working on into “molten ore.” She once said that anything can be subject matter for a poem as long as the poet is willing to focus on it intensely enough. If Piercy is direct and accessible as human being and artist, her work is similarly so to readers. Her themes span a wide range, including civil rights, ecology, feminism, relationships, and religion (particularly her Jewish heritage). Although some critics find influences of Walt Whitman and Denise Levertov in her work, Piercy’s opus and style seem rather uniquely her own. (Wainer, 17-21) In the introduction to Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (1982), the anthology that includes “Barbie Doll,” Piercy claims that she wants her poetry to be useful, “simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them…to give voice to something in the experience of a life. . . .” Somewhat ironically, “Barbie Doll” originally appeared in a volume of poems titled To Be of Use. Written in 1970, many of the poems reflect ideas having to do with feminist consciousness: sexual, political, and professional. Within that context, “Barbie Doll” emerges as terse commentary about society’s stereotypical expectations for females, and what happens if the authentic self is bypassed. It is possible for the reader to discover a dual movement in each stanza of “Barbie Doll,” the first section describing situational circumstances, the final two lines indicating their consequences. Hence, in stanza 1, “this girlchild” comes into a world where things exist “as usual” for female children. However, later, when “a classmate” observes her unattractive nose and legs, the “magic” of pubescence is under attack. Stanza 2 develops the girl’s positive qualities. However, while she is apologetic, those around her see her presumably physical flaws as who she is, not just something she has. In lines 10 and 11 (“She went to and fro apologizing./ Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs”), the reader notes the use of functional ambiguity, almost simultaneously allowing more than a single interpretation of the lines. Line 9 closes the preceding statement with a period. Lines 10 and 11 are each one-line declarations also closing with a period. Without the presence of transitional words or even comma breaks, the reader may ask whether the young girl is apologizing for her talents or for her large nose and legs?
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