Marge Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll,” may be said to perfectly exemplify the feminist movement of its time. The 1971 presents a nearly brutal assault on societal expectations of women in regard to appearance. The verse describes a single girl and documents her inability to meet these standards, and goes on to record the surgery done on herself which renders her “perfect” in her coffin. The narrative element notwithstanding, the poem is blatantly political, and consequently appears to lend itself to modernist feminist appraisal. However, the sheer relentlessness of the feminism in “Barbie Doll” is so overt, it admits to no further critical reading in that context. Employing a postmodern feminist perspective, however, adds or uncovers dimensions to “Barbie Doll” not immediately seen, and is therefore more valuable.
While the precise definition of postmodernism as critical theory remains subject to debate, there is greater clarity when the lens is turned to feminist issues. Even here, modernists tend to mistrust postmodernist approaches to feminism because the perceive them as inherently contrary to the modernist. This is not the case, however, as postmodern feminism rather seeks to expand and explore the acknowledged realities. To begin with, it rejects the idea that there is a unitary basis of experience and identity common to all women, an idea very much required by modernist, or even early, feminism (Giddens, Griffiths 475). Such a basis is the cornerstone of Piercy’s central character, in that she seems to represent “every girl,” at least in a middle-class, American sense. She is healthy and strong, and she is subjected to dolls and lipsticks from infancy. Weary of being unable to comply as needed, she mutilates herself: “So she cut off her nose and her legs/ and offered them up” (Piercy ll 17-18). In her casket, she achieves the female physical ideal, and the poem gives the strong impression that the nameless girl is, again, every girl.
As overt, modernist feminist doctrine, this is effective. Under the scrutiny of postmodernism, however, subjectivity generates different ideas. Specifically, postmodernism in feminism generally allows for both women and men serving as victims or oppressors (Flynn 14), and this view radically transforms Piercy’s poem. In no uncertain terms, it begs important questions, such as the true degree of strength and intelligence in a girl so consistently beaten down by her society.
It is valid for a feminist poem to decry the victimization of women, but it is equally valid to inquire as to levels of responsibility within the culture. This view does not, moreover, eviscerate the feminist perspective; rather, it reaffirms it by accepting it as important enough to warrant further consideration. Seen in a postmodernist context, then, “Barbie Doll” is strangely ambiguous in its apparent directness. It presents a victim, the victim is a woman doomed by a patriarchal culture demanding a kind of beauty, but the lack of substance within the woman as presented oddly reinforces the oppression as self-inflicted. Consequently, a postmodern feminist perspective uncovers dimensions to “Barbie Doll” not immediately seen.
Giddens, A., & Griffiths, S. Sociology. Malden: Polity Press, 2006. Print.
Flynn, E. A. Feminism Beyond Modernism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. Print.
Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll” The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2005. p. 1221. Print.