Gender Identity In Marge Piecy
’s “Barbie Doll” Essay, Research Paper
Gender Identity in Piercy?s ?Barbie Doll?
Dolls often give children their first lessons in what a society considers valuable and
beautiful. These dolls often reveal the unremitting pressure to be young, slim, and beautiful in a
society which values mainly aesthetics. Marge Piercy?s ?Barbie Doll? exhibits how a girl?s
childhood is saturated with gender-defined roles and preconceived norms for how one should
behave. In order to convey her thoughts, the author uses familiar, yet ironic, imagery, as well as
uses fluctuating tone in each stanza to better draw attention to the relevant points of her
The first four lines of ?Barbie Doll? are written in a trite, simplistic tone which represent
the normality and basic needs of infancy. It is at this point in one?s life that a child has no ability
to deviate from the norm, simply because they have no knowledge of it and are completely
influenced by what their parents present them with. The presentation of a doll and an oven,
along with lipstick (1-3), ensure that the girl will know exactly which gender role she must be.
These lines imitate the rigidity in which sexual and gender roles are defined. The tone of the
introductory stanza changes abruptly in line five when the speaker relates ?Then, in the magic of
puberty, a classmate said/ You have a great big nose and fat legs.? What is particularly ironic is
that puberty is referred to as a ?magic? time, when really it is a time for emotional crisis within
many children as they struggle to develop their autonomy. This line is directed in a candid
fashion which digresses from the mildness of the first few lines, rendering it quite more effective
than simplistic speech.
The second stanza of ?Barbie Doll? starts off as normal as the first, but easily strays into
different meaning. While ?She was healthy, tested intelligent? (7) connotes positive aspects of
the girl, ?possessed strong arms and back/ abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity? connotes
an entirely divergent idea. Gender roles always defined the man as ?strong? and the woman as
?weak,? the man as ?skillful with his hands? and the woman as ?skillful with a cookie tin,? and
finally, the man as the ?sexual aggressor? while the woman was the ?submissive help-mate.? In
lines eight and nine, the girl is identified by the characteristics typically associated with the male
gender, something quite unusual and completely opposite that of what line seven implies. ?She
went to and fro apologizing? (10) conveys that the girl recognizes her traits as disparaging and
dishonorable. The last line of the second stanza again changes in tone from simple to forthright
with the statement ?Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs?(11). This line re-emphasizes the
ugliness of not measuring up to the standard of an ideal female, a standard set by society.
Piercy addresses the stereotypical manners that women are pressured to perform in the
third stanza when she writes ?She was advised to play coy/exhorted to come on hearty/exercise,
diet, smile, and wheedle?(12-14). By advising the girl to act enthusiastic in response to a man,
starve herself to be thin, fake emotions, and influence men with soft words and flattery, the
author makes a general statement about how women were practically forced to be something
whether or not they wanted to. The words ?coy? and ?smile? conjure up images of a false
passivity that women must endure, images that help to shape the poem by providing a better view
of what the subject experienced. Line fifteen contains a reference to a fan belt, an object that,
similarly to a person?s ?good nature,? will wear out from use and abuse. The change in tone is
repeated once again as the author switches from mild lines about personality to a dramatic line in
which an analogy is made to represent an internal change in the character?s mentality.
With the beginning of the last stanza of ?Barbie Doll,? the reader can achieve almost a
sense of relinquishment as the subject symbolically ?…cut off her nose and her legs/ and offered
them up.? The reader is led to believe that the girl has come to a realization that she must
account for the loneliness and emptiness that she has felt as a result of imitating a false person.
This culmination is her death, an act of her surrendering herself to the pain. With line twenty?s
mention of an ?…undertaker?s cosmetics painted on,? the author paints an image of
concealment–the concealment of hurt and anguish suffered when a girl was forced to assimilate
into a materialistic society which functions only according to the standards set by its members.
Line twenty-one continues the pattern of ironic imagery with a vision of a ?putty nose,?
something that, along with the cosmetics, helps to conceal reality, and show the falseness of the
idealistic standards that society dictates. The ?pink and white nightie? (22) symbolizes the
supposed demureness of a female by assuming that pink and white are feminine colors. In line
twenty-three, people ask ?Doesn?t she look pretty?? This is yet another example of ironic
imagery that the author uses to make the reader visualize the situation and appraise the
nonsensical way in which we judge others, regardless of whether or not we are actually seeing
deeper than the surface image.
The author attempts to evoke pathos in the last two lines of the poem in the same manner
that she used to change the tone at the end of each stanza–by using ironic imagery and
conflicting, bold statements. By relating the girl?s death to ?consummation?(24), she invokes a
realization in the reader of the completion or culmination of an act. This act is the goal of society
to change its inhabitants into ?Barbie Dolls.? It wasn?t until the girl/subject was dead that
anyone considered her pretty, and even then it was not actually her who they were looking at;
rather, it was a generated character. Line twenty-five works with the previous line to evoke
feelings of pity and reconciliation within the reader as they contemplate the severity of the
pressures that society can produce.