Study Guide

Barbie Doll Themes

  • Women and Femininity

    The girlchild in "Barbie Doll" gives us a good idea of what it's like to be a young woman growing up in America (though hopefully times have improved since the seventies). We get a clear, and creepy, snapshot of some of the absurd expectations society often dangles over the heads of womenfolk.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What's the significance of the neologism, "girlchild"? What does the speaker appear to be emphasizing through this word?
    2. How is femininity portrayed in the poem? Does being a woman in mainstream society strike you as a condition of weakness or strength, according to the speaker's portrayal?
    3. How does the fairytale quality of the poem's sound contribute to the theme of women and femininity? 
    4. How does the speaker's tone contribute to the poem's theme of womanhood and femininity?

    Chew on This

    Between the "pee-pee dolls" and creepy-sexy corpses, this poem shows us how femininity in mainstream culture appears to be in need of a real makeover (without the makeup).

    It's not that women are portrayed in "Barbie Doll" to be weak in mainstream culture, but rather society bars them from exercising their true strength. Girl power, gang.

  • Appearances

    Appearance is pretty much the only thing Barbie has. And since she's a doll, we know she can't think or do anything either. Of course, the girlchild in "Barbie Doll" offers far more than an appearance, yet her appearance is the only thing everyone cares about. Society, this poem tells us, often prefers dolls over people. Go figure.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. How are appearances depicted in a physical sense and behavioral sense in the poem? What should the girlchild look and act like?
    2. Would it have made any difference if the girlchild's classmates didn't tease her for the way she looks? Would she have felt and acted differently in the end?
    3. What's the symbolic importance of a Barbie doll? What's Barbie supposed to represent in the poem?
    4. Is it ever really possible to see beyond appearances? Why or why not? Do you think there are ways to encourage folks (and kids) to look beyond the surface? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Appearances may be skin deep, but in Piercy's poem they have a way of killing what's inside too. Bummer.

    If true beauty comes from within, then "everyone" in Piercy's poem looks pretty silly valuing a lifeless doll over a talented person like the girlchild. Wise up, y'all.

  • Coming of Age

    Face it, everyone: growing up is a tough experience. We're trying to figure out who we are, what we want to do, and having to live up to everyone's expectations isn't always the easiest either. For the girlchild in "Barbie Doll," coming of age isn't about learning about oneself, but rather learning (and failing) to please everyone else, no matter how silly folks may be.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What do you think the speaker means in line 1 when she says the girlchild was "born as usual"?
    2. How do you think girls and boys experience growing up in different ways? Is there anything similar about the ways they come of age? 
    3. Do you think the adult world helps or hinders the process of coming of age in Piercy's poem? Is there anything adults can do to improve their influence over kids? 
    4. What's the significance of lines 24-25 that include the idea of "consummation at last"? Do you think the girlchild ever got the chance to experience a happy "consummation"?

    Chew on This

    Coming of age in Piercy's poem isn't so much about learning who you are, as it is learning who you're "supposed" to be in the eyes of society (skinny, pretty, putty-nosed—you get the picture).

    The adults in "Barbie Doll" appear as if they never quite made it past puberty—they don't sound a whole heckuva lot different from the girlchild's classmates.