Margie Pearcy's "Barbie Doll" details the image that society projects upon and expects from its young female population. From an early age these young women struggle to conform to the standards that society has defined for them. The results often are disastrous, leading to emotional conflicts that are often difficult if not impossible to resolve.
Beautiful, flawless dolls such as Barbie are frequently the first source of association that little girls have with the values placed on them by society. Parents give little toddlers dolls, miniature stoves, and cherry-candy colored lipsticks (2-4) for playthings. This would seem innocent enough, but already the guidelines are being set for what society at large expects girls to be. At this young age, little girls cannot really differ from what is expected since they are under the complete influence of their parents. Engulfed with these types of presents, the child is already learning her role in society. In puberty, during these most tumultuous years, the girl child is dealt a cruel blow by a peer who tells her she has a "big nose and fat legs" (5-6). Here we see the beginning of the conflict that will plague the young girl.
The second of stanza of "Barbie Doll" demonstrates the inner conflict these young girls are experiencing as they become acutely aware of how different they may be from what society perceives as the ideal female. Although a girl can be healthy and intelligent, it is not expected for her to possess the physical qualities of "strong arms and back, abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity" (8-9). These typify male traits, and young girls begin to perceive these as negative and unnatural for themselves. Feeling less than
worthy or valuable, the girl feels she owes society an apology for possessing these characteristics (10). Percy drive the point home by writing, "everyone saw a fat nose on big legs" (11). This line emphasizes the ugliness the girl feels by not measuring up to be the perfect or ideal female, a standard set by society. At this point, the girl begins the struggle to achieve the ideal female persona , that Barbie Doll image with the perfect face, hair, and unrealistic figure.
Not only does society set standards for physical attributes, it also dictates stereotypical behavior of the female toward members of the opposite sex. The girl is told "to play coy, exhorted to come on hearty, exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle" (12-14) to attract men. She is to employ manners that are actually fake, not a true representation of what she is on the inside. In addition to feeling she must look beautiful and thin, the girl is pressured to act in a pretentious manner to be accepted by society as an ideal member of her sex. She must "play up" to men and say and do things that will bolster the male ego and solidify her role as the ultimate female. This type of programming instills a sense of "losing" one's inner self. "Her good nature wore out like a fan belt" (15-16) symbolizes this loss of self and a change in the girl's attitude. As a result of compromising or losing her true self to the demands of society, the young girl/woman is confronted with the realization that living this "fake" existence has left her lonely, empty, and in pain. Dejected and depressed, she symbolically "cut off her nose and her legs and offered them up" (17-18). The girl's emotional suffering is so intense that she chooses death as the solution to end her pain and to compensate for losing her true identity, the
one society failed to recognize and nurture.
In the fourth and final stanza of "Barbie Doll" Pearcy utilizes ironic imagery to convey to the readers the senseless manner in which society views young women. The girl is seen in her casket "with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on, a turned-up putty nose" (20-21). These images continue the farce and conceal the effects that society has inflicted on its victim. Her caretakers have her "dressed in a pink and white nightie" (22) in order to maintain the ultimate feminine image. Tragically and ironically, the girl is recognized as pretty only in death as noted in line 23. Even here, however, society fails to see the "real" person. They see the image that a misguided society has created. The author writes, "Consummation at last" (24) to convey to us that in death the girl has achieved society's goal for her, to mold her into a real life Barbie Doll. "To every woman a happy ending" (25) continues society's deception that a woman is happy and fulfilled if she possesses physical beauty and acts in a certain manner.
"Barbie Doll" offers a sad but realistic view of the drastic consequences that can occur from living in a society that judges young women by unrealistic, false, and superficial values. Too often society fails young women by refusing to recognize, appreciate, and value true beauty, that which lies in young girls' hearts, spirits, and characters. These are the only true things that make a young lady beautiful, and the only qualities that can provide lasting happiness.