In literature, it is difficult to find selections that provide students with the opportunity to discover the importance of gender and to develop new meanings in this often unexplored topic. Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll" provides great opportunities for exploring issues of gender and for this reason should be required reading for first-year college students.
The poem's language provides a very powerful impression. The opening stanza describes the first, formative decade of the life of a "girlchild." Students can note that she is "presented with dolls that did pee-pee" (2) and that she receives "miniature GE stoves and irons," as well as "wee lipsticks" (3-4). The euphemistic words "pee-pee" and "wee" are excellent descriptions for the stereotypical "girl toys" that girls are expected to play with. A young girl begins to learn what she should be in society and not to deviate from the norm.
The second stanza provides contrast in the description of the girl in her early teens: "She was healthy, tested intelligent, / possessed strong arms and back" (7-8). These somewhat robust descriptions are ones that would usually be related to a male and are not acceptable qualities in a female unless she is beautiful. Although positive characteristics, they are balanced by a harsh yet simple line: "She went to and fro apologizing" (10). Students cannot miss or misunderstand the sadly depressing cycle that is described in these words. Everyone else still saw "a fat nose on thick legs" (11).
The third stanza is an unidentified period of adolescence and, perhaps, young adulthood. The girl is "advised to play coy, / exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle" (12-14). Here, students can consider how the words coy, exhorted, hearty, and wheedle create a powerful vision of the way people exert their influence on impressionable young women to act in an unnatural manner, like a Barbie doll.