Study Guide

Barbie Doll Summary

By Marge Piercy

Barbie Doll Summary

The poem opens with the speaker referencing the birth of a "girlchild" and all of the typical toys that go along with it. When the girl hits puberty, her sweet classmates tell her she has a big nose and fat legs. Meanwhile the girl is strong, intelligent, and healthy but the kids only see a big nose and fat legs. She's told how to behave, to be coy, and always wear a smile. Eventually she feels worn out "like a fan belt," so she cuts off her nose and legs and offers them up. In the casket the mortician has made a putty nose for her and because of her fake nose, everyone says she looks pretty. And, because she looks pretty, the girlchild has a happy ending (even though she's dead).

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-4

    This girlchild was born as usual
    and presented dolls that did pee-pee
    and miniature GE stoves and irons
    and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.

    • The speaker starts us off with a kind of neologism in the word "girlchild" that gets us thinking about what it means to be both girl and child. From the beginning we feel like the speaker is going to point out a few "normal" habits that accompany the raising of young girls.
    • Her birth is totally normal ("usual") though and so far we don't see anything that strikes us as out-of-the-ordinary per se.
    • Like a typical "girlchild," she shows off her dolls that do "pee-pee" and other play things like miniature stoves, irons, and of course lipsticks. Here's the sort of thing our speaker's talking about. 
    • Even though things look "usual" here, we get the feeling that they only appear normal because these are the kinds of toys that are given to girls. The girlchild isn't running off to Target to buy them for herself, so we immediately sense a conflict between the adult world and the way folks raise their young. There's an awful lot of power and control the older folks have, considering the reality of impressionable young minds and what they come to associate as "normal" due to adult behavior and values.
    • Notice too that lines 3 and 4 include "wee lipsticks" and "miniature" stoves, which suggest that adults often go for shrunken versions of the so-called "normal" objects associated with gender to suit their kids. So instead of creating totally new toys, they just miniaturize the sorts of things that grown women are confronted with, perpetuating the whole cycle of what's supposed to be normal according to the adult world and patriarchy (world dominated by men).
    • We also have a perfect rhyme in lines 2 and 4: "pee-pee" and "candy." The rhyme here adds a layer of sound that reminds us of a nursery rhyme, which makes this initial imagery even more poignant. Check out "Form and Meter" for more. 
    • Also we have some assonance going on in all the E sounds ("pee-pee," "GE," "wee," "candy"), making things sound rhyme-like but not singsong. Check out "Sound Check" for more on the sounds here.

    Lines 5-6

    Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
    You have a great big nose and fat legs.

    • Ah, puberty: the time when things start growing funny and we start to smell bad for no apparent reason. Notice the speaker has a kind of sarcastic tone here to complement line 5 and the "magic" of puberty. 
    • To make things even better for this girlchild, her classmate has some highly encouraging words: "big nose and fat legs." So it's not just her body that's acting up. Her classmates are acting according to the sorts of "imperfections" they hear miserable adults talk about. Kids mirror what they see and hear every day, so we know these cruel words have to come from somewhere.
    • Puberty is also the time when girls and boys start learning more about socializing with one another. So the speaker is also alluding to the uphill battle girls often have when it comes to accepting their bodies for what they are in the context of the adult world. And if these words are any indication as to how well things are going for society, we've got a lot of work to do.
    • Notice too that the speaker is maintaining that nursery rhyme sound with the "you have a great big nose" line. Sounds a bit like Little Red Riding Hood, right? (We wonder who the wolf might be in this case.) Check out "Sound Check" for more.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-9

    She was healthy, tested intelligent,
    possessed strong arms and back,
    abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.

    • By the second stanza, we're starting to notice some of the absurdity that's part of the adult world and the values they've come to impose upon young women and their worth. 
    • The girlchild here seems to have it all: health, intelligence, strength, sexuality, manual dexterity—you name it. But still, the kids only point out her appearance rather than her character.
    • So we're starting to understand the problem here a bit better. The adult world raises kids in a way that values a woman's appearance and what she can do in a kitchen rather than her seemingly limitless talents beyond those pee-pee dolls. And of course, once kids catch wind of what's supposed to be "normal" and "valuable," they spare no expense when it comes to mimicking those expectations in rather cruel ways.

    Lines 10-11

    She went to and fro apologizing.
    Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

    • If we weren't feeling bad for the girl yet, we probably are now. Those mean kids are the ones picking on her and yet she is the one apologizing! Imagine having someone steal your milk and then you find yourself apologizing. That's kind of the level of absurdity we're dealing with here.
    • And why is she apologizing? Because she's somehow to blame for having a fat nose and big legs. As a woman she therefore appears entirely intolerable in a society that only values women for what they look like. So the speaker is really homing in on the ways women are expected to look, and if they don't look that way, they're expected to apologize for any inconvenience they've caused for the people looking at her. Talk about sick and twisted.
    • The takeaway point is in line 11 that points out that everyone only sees the girlchild for her appearance, even though her attributes far outweigh her imperfections. And again, we assume this is happening because of the adult world's absurd expectations and values for women.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 12-14

    She was advised to play coy,
    exhorted to come on hearty,
    exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.

    • By the third stanza, we're seeing the girlchild a bit more grown up. She's still a young girl, but now she's being told not only what she should look like but also how she should behave. 
    • And how should young girls behave? They should "play coy" (shy) yet also be hearty, exercise (to counter those "thick" legs of course), diet, smile, and use those girlish charms to "wheedle" (coax). 
    • Is anyone else feeling a bit skeeved out? Yeah, us too. And that's probably a good thing for this poem. We're supposed to cringe at all of these ridiculous pearls of wisdom since we understand that this girl is far more talented than anyone gives her credit for. 
    • But instead of embracing her talents, she's told here to curb them entirely and become someone she's not. She should deny her strength by being coy and losing weight and she should smile all the while, even if she's miserable.
    • So again, we're noticing the speaker's focus here that's revealing the ways adults force young women to fit a mold in order to please everyone else. They're not supposed to please themselves like young men are encouraged to do via sports, academics, leadership, etc. Instead, they need to please others (namely the patriarchy).

    Lines 15-16

    Her good nature wore out
    like a fan belt.

    • We can kind of see why the girl's good nature would wear out. Her entire experience is wasted trying to be someone she's not.
    • And the added simile here that compares the wear and tear to a worn out fan belt is right on target. 
    • We notice too that her "good nature" was never quite good to begin with, since it's founded on all sorts of ridiculous expectations coming from everyone else but her. So it's not her "good nature," but rather the nature that society would prefer she has, which kind of contradicts the whole point of "nature."
    • The added benefit of using the imagery of a fan belt here is that we imagine a running engine, and if that engine can't run properly, it won't run at all. So it's kind of like the whole problem with the girlchild. She can't use her engine (or person) the way it should naturally be used, so she tries to make it run contrary to its purpose, making the whole thing wear out quicker than it should.

    Lines 17-18

    So she cut off her nose and her legs
    and offered them up.

    • As gruesome as these lines may sound, they're also startlingly indicative of the kind of absurdity the speaker is driving at. If everyone else wants so badly for the girl to look and be someone she's not, might as well get rid of those things all together, no matter if it kills her. 
    • So the point the speaker appears to be making here is that in pressuring the girlchild to be someone she's not. Society is essentially encouraging her to destroy and mutilate herself. If a person can't be who he or she naturally is, then it makes sense that that person can't "be" at all in the eyes of society. 
    • The grotesque imagery we see here also complements the kind of nursery rhyme/fairytale mood that the speaker appears to be working with. Grimm's Fairy Tales are known to be rather dark and gruesome at times, even though they're meant for kids. So we see a similar kind of balance here between childhood sounds and images and their darker connotations that reflect the horrors of the adult world.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 19-20

    In the casket displayed on satin she lay
    with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,

    • By the fourth stanza, we know for sure that all of the mutilation we saw earlier definitely killed the girlchild, who's lying in a casket in these lines. 
    • To make things even creepier, we see her lying on pretty "satin" and all done up by the undertaker. So even in death the poor girl can't escape being fussed with and made-up to look like someone she's not.
    • Notice too that she's "displayed" on satin like some sort of doll. So at this point we're seeing how the girlchild has been made to look like the very dolls she was given to play with. We see her not as a human being here, but more as an object or plaything that is "displayed" in a manner that makes everyone else feel comfortable.
    • The word "painted" in line 20 furthers the speaker's sense of the girlchild being a kind of doll with a painted on face. In death (as in life), she's not treated like a person, but a thing.

    Lines 21-22

    a turned-up putty nose,
    dressed in a pink and white nightie.

    • It gets even creepier here. The undertaker has prepared a perfect little "putty nose" for the girl too, since she cut off her own.
    • So we see her appearance here as a kind of antithesis to a fairytale's happy ending, since she's made to look like the very thing that helped to destroy her.
    • And you thought the creepy stuff ended here, right? By line 22 we see the girl in a pink and white "nightie," which gives the impression that, on top of everything else, the girl is being sexualized even in death. A "nightie" is just another word for sexy lingerie that women wear to bed. 
    • At this point we're really cringing and feeling all kinds of uncomfortable, which is kind of the intended purpose of all the macabre and creepy imagery
    • Perhaps we're also meant to see just how pervasive (and perverted) those ridiculous expectations for women really are. The girl can't even escape them in death. And folks still aren't getting just how oppressive these practices can be. They just keep on doing the same thing, no matter if the girl is dead or alive.

    Lines 23-25

    Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
    Consummation at last.
    To every woman a happy ending.

    • Our speaker really drives her point home in these final lines. Despite all of the mutilation, sexualizing, and the perversion of the girl's appearance, folks still give her what they think is the best compliment of all: "Doesn't she look pretty?"
    • Of course we hear the speaker's sarcastic tone some more in these lines, accenting the absurdity of what we're actually seeing and hearing here. The girl's dead and still made to look like a doll and yet everyone thinks everything is great because she looks pretty with her fake putty nose and sexy nightie (that's presumably covering up the fact that, you know, she has no legs).
    • The consummation and "happy ending" sounds like the complete opposite to us at this point. We know better than everyone else since we understand that there's nothing pretty or "happy" about a dead mutilated girl who's sexualized and made-up to look like a doll. We know what the girl was really feeling while alive and how oppressed and dehumanized she felt all along. 
    • We also hear the speaker's sarcasm some more in line 25 when she says "to every woman a happy ending," as if women are all the same and are treated as such. So long as you tell a woman she's pretty, she'll be happy and do whatever she's told to do—even if it means her death.
    • By the end we're really feeling what the speaker is saying in this poem. In raising young girls to be little more than domesticated dolls that serve and please the world around them, we essentially deny them their humanity. We're not buying little girls off the shelves, after all. Yet there's a part of society that treats them like life-sized dolls. And in denying them the right to their own humanity and individuality, we're pretty much saying that they're not worth much to us, dead or alive. 
    • All in all, this poem delivers a harsh message. Sadly though, it's still pretty relevant, given that things like this still exist.