The title of the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy speaks of the idea of the perfect body image that prevails in society today. It identifies with the standard to which the persona of the poem finds herself held by society, and which she suddenly realizes she cannot meet. The poem’s title underlines the irony and tragedy of the situation, as it demonstrates how little girls, in their ignorance, spend their time playing with these seemingly harmless toys. However, all the while they are inculcating a self image that few persons are able to live up to.
When this particular persona is told by a class mate that she has a big nose and big legs (line 6), comparison to her beloved Barbie Doll of childhood only confirms the accusation. The poet utilizes the third-person narrative voice as the speaker of the poem. While the speaker may have drawn from his/her own experiences, all evidence points toward the speaker and the persona’s being distinct persons. The central character is a girl who has grown up with the usual experiences of any little girl, but who is suddenly thrown into conflict with herself by the comment of a classmate.
The poem’s structure is not fixed, as it appears to be in free verse. One noticeable aspect of the poem is that the first three stanzas all end with a comment on the persona’s nose and legs. Apart from this, the stanzas do not demonstrate any strict uniformity of structure or rhyme. The diction of the speaker indicates that he or she has had at least a middle- or upper-middle-classed background. The use of the phrase “miniature GE stoves and irons and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” (lines 3-4) points toward a childhood enriched with relatively expensive toys.
The presentation of dolls (line 2) also gives evidence of the speaker (and persona’s) belonging to the higher social classes in which girls are formally “presented” to society at a certain age. The speaker also betrays a high level of education, with the use of such terms as “manual dexterity” (line 9). This phrase might be in reference to skill on the piano—though possibly to something a bit less honorable, as it is mentioned along with her “abundant sexual drive” (line 9).
However, the delicacy with which the speaker does refer to sexual things also betrays a skill with words possessed by the educated and privileged. The poem reflects the life of a particular girl who has grown to womanhood and no longer appreciates her body image. It appears to be spoken as a eulogy to a congregation at a funeral, telling the story of the person who is now displayed in the casket. The girl, who grew up carefree and doll-loving as other girls, suddenly becomes aware of her inability to fit the image of the perfect woman created by society.
She neither loves herself nor believes that anyone can, and tries to compensate for this by flattering (wheedling) others, dieting, and perhaps even through sexual promiscuity. However, the futility of all this exasperates her as “her good nature wore out like a fan belt” (lines 15-16). The cutting off and offering up of her legs and nose (lines 17-18) may be in reference to sexual freedom with her body, while it may also refer to a suicidal attempt that may have led to her death.
The use of the metaphorical term “magic of puberty” (line 5) is clever in its ability to contain both changes the girl undergoes at that time. Her body does appear to change magically from normal to ugly in response to the classmate’s description of her nose and legs. The phrase reflects that this happens at the same time that bodies usually change “magically” from girlhood to womanhood. The speaker also finds a clever metaphor in the use of the term “consummation at last” (line 24).
This refers to the reconciliation of the persona’s desires, as she has always wanted to be considered pretty and now has been described thus by those who view her in her casket. Yet, it also highlights the irony of the situation, as only in death are these people “at last” willing to admit her beauty. This admission comes when it is too late. The “happy ending” (line 25) to which the speaker refers is a twisted and perverse one in which only in death (her ending) does she find the acceptance that she seeks. Work Cited Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll. ” Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1999.