Study Guide

Barbie Doll Analysis

  • Sound Check

    The speaker of "Barbie Doll" sounds like the narrator of a modern fairytale, so we can expect that the poem will sound the same in a lot of ways. In fact, the poem reads more like a story than a poem without a set form, meter, rhyme, etc. The free verse allows the speaker some freedom to narrate the girlchild's story without distracting us too much with fancy poetic devices.

    But, if "Barbie Doll" reads like a modern fairytale, we need to also take note that this isn't your run-of-the-mill "Princess and the Pea" story. The poem points out that, if the girlchild doesn't sound "perfect" to us, it's not because there's something wrong with her; it's because there's something wrong with us. Oh sure this may sound like a light jaunt in fairytale land, but there's certainly nothing magical and light about the speaker's message.

    The sounds at work in this poem help to underling that idea. Notice that the speaker uses devices like assonance ("pee-pee," "GE," "wee," "candy") to help create that airy, rhyming, fairytale sound without distracting us too much from the poem's main ideas. Plus the subtle rhyme adds that super-creepy feeling that reminds us of childhood, only we're seeing things with a weather eye for the not-so-fun-and-innocent.

    By the time we get to lines 17-18 (cutting off noses and such), we really hear the gruesome but true severity of society's pressure. Instead of cheering for the happy prince who has found his "perfect" princess, we find ourselves considering the princess's (girlchild) side of the story, and there aren't too many happy endings to be found there. In fact, what sounds at first like a happy fairytale in one way ("she went to and fro apologizing") ends up sounding more like a gruesome nightmare, complete with bodily mutilation and crushed spirits (worn out fan belts). Bad times, gang.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    What's up with the title? Everything's up with the title. The imagery and subsequent ideas associated with a "Barbie Doll" immediately get us thinking about what's considered "normal" for young girls. Since Barbie is such a huge icon in pop culture, we know that the speaker is going to be getting at some big issues related to how we raise girls in America.

    And even if you don't have any deep-rooted issues with Barbie, you'll still likely consider the imagery of a doll and imagine something that's lifeless though seemingly "perfect" in the eyes of mainstream culture. So, no matter if you're shaking your fist at the title or imagining perfect hair and legs, chances are you're thinking about unrealistic notions of what it means for a woman to be beautiful and therefore valuable to her society.

    Maybe you might even consider something that's vacant and dumb when you imagine a doll. There isn't a whole lot going on behind a doll's eyes, so the title also gets us thinking about how popular culture so often values the not-so-smart over the smart. And, being smart Shmoopers, you know how silly and uncool that habit is.

  • Setting

    Since we're dealing with Barbie and miniature GE stoves, it's safe to assume that we're in North America somewhere, although we don't get any specifics. Of course Barbie exists in other places too, but considering how normalized "pee-pee dolls" and the like are in this poem, we get the feeling we're definitely in the good ol' U.S. of A.

    But we notice that we're also in a child's version of America since we feel and hear the girlchild's point of view. We get to experience the joys of puberty all over again along with the added bonus of being teased by classmates. We also see just how absurd and out of touch the adult world really is for the girlchild, which makes her side of the story so much more real to us.

    Of course the fairytale vibe of "Barbie Doll" provides an extra-creepy twist when imagining the poor girl dead and mutilated in her casket. So we have a kind of dark fairytale version of America that takes place in an already confusing childhood world. And yet it all comes together rather nicely (though gruesomely) by the end in a way that sums up the absurd expectations for all women, young and old, in America.

  • Speaker

    Our speaker of "Barbie Doll" sounds like she's straight out of a modern fairytale and on a mission to turn the whole damsel-in-distress motif on its head. The girlchild is a kind of Sleeping Beauty, only a prince isn't coming to wake her up from some awful nightmare. (Bummer.) Instead, in a rather macabre but modern way, the speaker makes the girlchild look like a victim of the world around her without any practical way of defeating the wicked witch or undoing the evil spell. And Prince Charming is certainly nowhere to be found.

    So the speaker tells the girl's story in the same sort of way we might hear Sleeping Beauty's story, only her "happy ending" involves a casket, a putty nose, and a creepy nightie. We hear the girlchild's story through the speaker's third-person omniscient point of view, again similar to the kind of voice you'd hear in a fairytale. The really macabre portions of the poem involving the girl's mutilated body also sound a bit like a tale out of Grimm's Fairy Tales, but we notice that the speaker has a larger message in mind regarding societal pressures and the absurd adult world. So Piercy's poem isn't just about freaking us out with witches that eat kids and such.

    Essentially, the speaker sounds like a cross between the speaker of a classic fairytale and a speaker of some sort of feminist treatise. It's a weird mix, but it works in this poem. We hear the poem's classical elements balanced with a more modern perspective. She also has a kind of dark humor that's impossible to ignore when reading lines about "pee-pee dolls" and "wee lipsticks" followed by the "magic of puberty." The humor comes to us through the speaker's sarcastic tone that captures the absurdity of the adult world in which the girlchild finds herself. The very last line in particular ("To every woman a happy ending") demonstrates the speaker's sarcastic point of view perfectly, since we know there's nothing "happy" about a young mutilated girl in a casket.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Since "Barbie Doll" reads more like a dark fairytale than a poem, it doesn't take a whole lot of decoding to figure out what's going on. The speaker keeps it all rather simple for us without fancy words, meters, or cryptic meanings.

  • Calling Card

    Feminist Extraordinaire

    Piercy really does it all: poetry, fiction, cyber-punk, you name it. But one thing is consistent throughout her work—a feminist angle that explores the problems of being a woman, artist, and person in contemporary American culture. Though she may go about this angle in dramatically different ways, we definitely sense her interest in womanhood whether in present, past, or future circumstances.

    She's also rather cool about it all, no matter how dark or painful her words may sound. Piercy isn't the type to fly off the handle or present her ideas in an unbalanced way. After all, feminism is about empowering women, not emasculating men, so she often has a dark sense of humor that puts it all in perspective. So we often leave her work feeling as if we've had a well-balanced meal that's seasoned with an emphasis on feminism and personhood. For a better idea, you can check out a couple of her other gems here and here.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    "Barbie Doll" was written in the seventies, and we know how "free" folks were looking to be back then. So it makes sense that Piercy would opt for free verse over a particular rhyme and meter for her poem. Plus, since she's talking about how culture often traps young girls into thinking and looking certain ways, it also makes sense that she'd look to exercise freedom in other ways, like meter.

    Instead of fancy meters, we see a lot of enjambment, where one line runs on into the next. You get examples of this in lines 1-4, that lists all of the ways society tends to brainwash its young girls ("pee-pee dolls," "miniature stoves," "wee lipsticks"). Then we have other instances (lines 9-11) of quick end-stops between lines that keep the speaker sounding short, sweet, and to the point. The combo of both makes Piercy's poem sound more natural and honest rather than planned and prescribed, which allows the poem's message to ring a bit truer in our ears.

    But we do have an instance of perfect rhyme in lines 2 and 4 ("pee-pee" and "candy") that reminds us of some of the more formal conventions of poetry. In fact, the overall sound of the poem has a nursery rhyme vibe to it, especially while reading the more macabre portions that include the girl cutting off her nose and legs (17-18). So although the poem sounds free, we do have instances of the speaker paying a sort of homage to the classic fairytale and perfect rhyme, while giving us a darker, more modern twist.

    When we consider the context and message behind the poem, it also makes sense that the speaker would use free verse. "Barbie Doll" reads more like a story than a poem, so by keeping the form and meter free, we hear more of the telltale signs of a good story rather than a fancy poem. In other words, we're not distracted by too many singsong rhymes and perfectly timed syllabic patterns that might deter from the poem's message.

  • Barbie

    And you thought Barbie was just a good gift idea to put under the tree next Christmas. In Piercy's "Barbie Doll," Barbie kind of gets a makeover and it's not exactly for the better. Here she's more of a symbol of what Marge Piercy sees as the failed value system we've put in place for young girls in America. In all of Barbie's "perfection," we come to see the real cost these kinds of expectations inflict upon the "girlchild."

    • Title: Notice we don't actually hear the speaker use the word "Barbie" anywhere besides the title. And yet the imagery of Barbie is all over the poem when we consider how the girlchild is teased for her "fat nose on thick legs" that don't look like Barbie's flowing hair and perfect legs.
    • Lines 5-6: Ah, the "magic of puberty," when boys and girls suddenly realize they don't look like Barbie or Ken. And yet those mean kids still tease the girl for her "great big nose and fat legs," no matter how physically unrealistic Barbie really is.
    • Lines 7-9: When we consider just how talented the girlchild is with her intelligence, strength, and health, she kind of blows Barbie out of the water. Barbie's lifeless without any of these attributes, and yet the kids still won't leave the girl alone because she doesn't look like Barbie.
    • Lines 12-14: On top of looking like Barbie, the girl is also expected to behave in the sort of way we might imagine to be "perfect" for a young girl. Yet, all of the acting only wears the girl out because she's trying to be someone she's not.
    • Lines 17-18: Finally, the girlchild has had enough and cuts off her nose and legs because they don't look like Barbie's. And in doing so, she ends up killing herself since you can't be yourself and someone else at the same time. 
    • Lines 20-23: You'd think that because of the whole death thing, everyone would leave the girl alone and let her be herself in her casket. Nope. The girlchild is made-up to look like Barbie even in death, just so everyone can say how pretty she looks. Creepy.
  • Girlchild

    There's something on-point about this neologism that points to the unique experience of being a child and a girl in "Barbie Doll." As countless authors have written about, girls feel a whole different kind of pressure from the adult world in comparison to young boys. And that pressure often has something to do with looking pretty and being on their best behavior while pleasing those around them, no matter if they end up looking and being someone they're not.

    • Lines 1-2: She's born "as usual" and goes around showing off her "pee-pee dolls" and miniature GE stoves. Immediately we sense the kinds of expectations that constitute being a "normal" young girl. The idea here is that girls should be in the kitchen, imagine being future mothers, and wear "wee lipsticks" in preparation for womanhood. 
    • Lines 10-11: Even though this girl has it all in terms of useful attributes, she still doesn't look like Barbie and therefore goes "to and fro apologizing." Everyone just sees a "fat nose on thick legs." So those expectations go even further than just affecting the girlchild. Everyone else appears to be brainwashed, too.
    • Line 15: Eventually the girlchild's good nature wears out like "a fan belt." All of the acting and pretending to be Barbie has essentially killed her spirit (and her body).
    • Lines 23-25: At this point the girl is dead but she gets a morbidly happy ending by being called "pretty." Of course we sense the speaker's sarcastic tone here, but the point is that these expectations for girls are not only absurd but also highly destructive and dangerous.
  • Fat Nose on Thick Legs

    It sounds like a pretty harsh characterization, but it serves a purpose in "Barbie Doll." The girlchild's "fat nose on thick legs" sounds extra-mean so that we can feel for a minute the kind of pressure and humiliation the girl experiences. And this kind of pressure isn't hers alone. Countless girls in America undergo similar kinds of absurd expectations, no matter how wonderful these girls may be on the inside. This poem points to how society tends to value the book's cover over the book when it comes to women, but hopefully smart Shmoopers will change all that.

    • Lines 5-6: Those first classmates who point out the girl's so-called imperfections kind of set the standard for everyone else. No matter how foolish they may sound, they mirror the kinds of superficial values that the adult world likes to encourage.
    • Lines 10-11: The "fat nose on thick legs" is all everyone ever sees. So they sound brainwashed since they can't see all of the wonderful attributes the girl actually has. They're a bit like Barbie zombies looking for noses and legs to eat, rather than brains. 
    • Lines 17-18: As gruesome as it sounds, the girl cutting off her nose and legs serves as a kind of symbol for the absurdity of the adult world's superficial values. By pressuring young girls, we essentially kill their natural spirit and prevent them from being who they are. Bad news.
    • Steaminess Rating


      If it weren't for the sexy nightie and the sexual connotations that go along with it, "Barbie Doll" would've gotten a G rating. Plus, the speaker isn't shy about the girchild's "sexual drive," so things are a little sexy (though really more creepy than anything), but not too crazy.