Not-So-Great expectations: Revealing the Social Message in “Barbie Doll”

What is the Ideal woman? Does such as thing exist? The answer is No, but society seems to think differently. For many years, society has expected women to live up to its expectations of how a woman should look and act. As soon as a child is born, they

are immediately molded into their gender. We mold a child based on what society teaches us about the roles of each gender. Women have been trying to fight against and break away from those typical gender roles that have been put upon them. Many women have spoken out about this issue. One of those women is Marge Piercy, who has been a feminist writer since the 1960s. She has written many poems protesting against the traditional gender roles that have been assigned to women. A good example of Piercy’s feminist writings is a poem entitled “Barbie Doll” that was published in 1982. In this poem, the speaker tells a story about a girl and her struggle to become the ideal model of feminine behavior and beauty. This poem makes an important statement about how damaging and destructive social ideals and expectations are. Piercy’s use of symbols, irony, and language help to support this statement.

The first four lines of “Barbie Doll” draws the reader’s attention to the fact that the main character is gendered as a girl. 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 (lines 1-4) This shows that she is already being classified by her gender as soon as she was born. She is already being molded into being a feminine girl. There are people giving her dolls, and toy stoves and irons, which are the typical toys for a girl. The dolls that the girl receives are a symbol of her future motherhood, and the stove and iron are symbols associated with a domestic lifestyle. This illustrates how people believe that a woman’s place is at home taking care of a husband and children. By giving her these toys, she will learn how to care for a baby, cook, iron, and other domestic duties. Thus, preparing her for her life ahead. Giving girls presents like these is not uncommon. Toys such as little toasters, brooms, and vacuum cleaners have been on the market since the 1950s. (Peril 36) The most popular of these type of toys in the Easy-Bake Oven, which was introduced in 1964 and still being sold today to millions of young girls. (Peril 36). The girl is also given lipstick, which is another traditional toys for girls. She is already being given cosmetics. This is teaching the girl that looks should be important to a woman. Not only will she have to cook, clean, and take care of children, but she will have to look good while doing it. These unrealistic expectations could cause young women to collapse under the pressures of society.
In the last couple of lines in this stanza, the main character has grown into a young lady. The speaker refers to the girl’s puberty as “magic” as if it is a wonderful event that has magically changed her body, but then creates a situation in which a classmate insults her body by saying she has “a great big nose and fat legs”. (Piercy 1-6) This rude classmate symbolizes society and its focus on physical beauty.
In the next stanza, the speaker describes her now, perhaps, as a teenager:
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity

She went to and fro apologizing. Every saw a fat nose on thick legs. (Piercy 7-11) Here, the speaker describes the young woman’s non-physical appearance, as opposed to only noticing her physical attributes. The girl appears to be strong, intelligent, and possesses the qualities of most young adults at her age, such as a sex drive and dexterity. Even though she posseses these great qualities, she is still seen only as “a fat nose on thick legs”. (Piercy 11). She is not refered to as a girl, she is only classified by her physical features. This represents how society tends to objectify women, and see them as only as a physical thing. It is also ironic that she apoligizes for being the way she is, when she has done nothing wrong. It is everyone who should be apolozizing for being shallow and narrow-minded.

In the next stanza is where we really start to see the girl suffer from the pressure surrounding
her: She was advised to play coy, exhorted to come on hearty, exercise, diet, smile and wheedle, (12-14)
The expectations for her are obvious. This girl is expected to “play coy, come on hearty, exercise, diet and wheedle.” (Piercy 12-14). In other words, she is expected to be shy, quiet, and timid She is also encouraged to be in shape, to be charming, and smile while doing so. These are high expectations that society puts forth.

In the next lines we see the girls mental and physical breakdown.: Her good nature wore out like a fan belt. So she cut off her nose and her legs and offered them up. In the casket displayed on satin she lay with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on, a turned up putty nose, dressed in a pink and white nightie.

To every woman a happy ending. (Piercy 16-25) In this stanza, the young woman’s good spirit is broken by all the criticism. She cuts off her nose and her legs, ultimately committing suicide. At her funeral, people finally compliment her and say how beautiful she is. She has a lot of a makeup on and she has a fake nose. It is quite ironic that now, she is finally considered pretty, even though she is dead. Since she now has a dainty nose and is wearing a pink and white nightie, she is now representing what society believes is true femininity. It is obvious that the people at her funeral represent society and their view of women and overall feminity. Ironically, her death is described as a happy ending, even though it was a shocking and tragic death, but it seems like a happy ending because she is finally being accepted by her peers.

Another ironic thing about this poem is the title in itself. Everyone is familiar with the Barbie doll. It has been a very popular toy since its debut in 1959. (Sparke 20). When reading the title, a reader would probably expect to read a story about a beautiful, feminine girl with lots of friends and accessories, just like the Barbie Doll has. Ironically, the main speaker does not become like a Barbie Doll until her tragic death, which is quite unexpected.

With the use of symbolism and irony, Piercy conveys a message about society’s unrealistic expectations for women. By taking readers through a fairytale-like story that ends in tragedy, Piercy shows us that some women do not take these social pressures lightly. It greatly affects women, whether we realize it or not. Piercy realizes that many young girls look up to Barbie as a role model, and they aspire to be like her. That is why she wrote this poem. She wanted to point out that being like a Barbie doll may not be such a good thing after all.