by Marge Piercy
Barbie Doll Introduction
In A Nutshell
Did everyone get the newest Katy Perry doll? Yeah, we didn't either. We're guessing that there's a reason for our better judgment and we're also pretty sure that Marge Piercy might have something to say about the whole thing. In her poem, "Barbie Doll," first published in 1971, we have a whole host of reasons as to why one might feel compelled to opt for a space rocket over the latest Barbie trend for little Susie.
To put it mildly, Piercy wasn't too interested in shoving Barbie dolls and GE stoves into the faces of young girls. She thought that maybe girls might have a better go at thinking about things other than brushing hair and playing house (call her crazy). And considering that this particular poem was written in the midst of a feminist movement in America that redefined the lives of many women, we're guessing that Piercy's opinion wasn't hers alone.
In fact, Piercy was an active organizer who had a hand in all sorts of political cookie jars, including, but not limited to, feminism and the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). When she wasn't busy inspiring likeminded folks to improve the world around them, she wrote poetry and fiction (and lots of it). She experimented in historical fiction, science fiction, and cyber-punk too (check out Woman on the Edge of Time for more about that).
But for our purposes, we just can't get over the way Piercy's speaker in "Barbie Doll" really pulls together the absurd ways that young girls are brainwashed into looking and being something they're not. In fact, by end of the poem, the "girlchild" of the poem cuts off her "fat nose on thick legs" just to make everyone else happy and have a moment of looking pretty (even though she's lying dead in a casket at this point).
Sound a bit grim? We think so too, but at the same time Piercy's speaker manages to get us thinking about the ways our society normalizes expectations of women that aren't quite "normal." After all, being 5'9'', with an 18'' waist, and wearing a size 3 shoe doesn't strike us as particularly normal. Oh, and a real life Barbie, according to these proportions, would have to walk on all fours and wouldn't menstruate. So yeah, maybe Piercy was on to something in this poem…
Why Should I Care?
"Barbie Doll" isn't just a girl thing. It's a people thing since, last we checked, women play a mighty large part in the continuation of our society at large. And if our young women aren't doing too well because of the sorts of unrealistic or stifling values we impose upon them, it's safe to assume that society as a whole will suffer too.
More importantly, it's up to young adults like Shmoopers to be super-smart about things and take a minute to reevaluate the world around them. Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll" offers plenty of food for thought, no matter who you are, and gets us thinking about the ways the adult world can make or break our younger generations.
In lots of ways, Piercy's poem explores those nagging anxieties that come along with puberty and self-image in a world that demands so much of everyone. And we've all been through puberty, so we know how tough it can be when kids our own age poke fun at us because of the superficial expectations that the adult world has invariably imposed upon us all. Eventually, the "girlchild" in Piercy's poem is "worn out like a fan belt" because of all of the pressure and humiliation.
So we've got it all here, folks: real life situations we can all identify with, some darkly humorous imagery that reveals the follies of the adult world (including "pee-pee" dolls), and a chance to give those ridiculous expectations a kick to the curb—right where they belong.