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Womanhood in Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” vs. Kincaid’s “Girl”

For the American feminist movement, the 1970s was a time of utmost importance in many ways. According to McBean (2018), even though the Women’s Liberation Movement started in the 1960s, it gained traction in the public sphere in the next decade. This contributed to the appearance of mainstream feminist fiction as a phenomenon. Examples of works that were written during this time include the poem Barbie Doll by Marge Piercy and the short story Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. Both pieces provide a feminist perspective on the peculiarities of growing up as a female back then – and in many ways, still to this day.

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Barbie Doll tells the story of a so-called “girlchild,” which starts with her being presented with gendered toys as a child. Upon entering puberty, a classmate tells the Girl that she has a big nose and fat legs – and it stays with her forever. The narrator speaks about all the good qualities that the protagonist possesses, but she does not seem to see or recognize them. She is constantly advised on how to be and act – and it torments her to the point where she cuts off her nose and legs and presents them to the world as offerings. The poem ends with the protagonist’s death: she lies in a casket with a remade face and in pretty clothes, and everyone admires her beauty.

The narration of Girl is constructed out of pieces of advice, directions, and remarks that the protagonist receives from someone else – presumably, her mother. There are only a few replies that come from the daughter, and these are simply attempting to timidly confront her parent. Things said to the Girl are astonishing in terms of their number and variety: from how to properly prepare and cook food to how to behave appropriately in different situations. It is interesting to note that the protagonist recalls warnings against becoming promiscuous – she is accused of having the desire to do so. The fact that these are mentioned is indicative of the strong effect these cruel words said by a mother had on her child.

Both protagonists can be considered victims of attempting to navigate womanhood. The girl’s main heroine lost her fight by not being able to conform to society’s expectations of her, represented by her mother’s remarks. So did the Girl in Barbie Doll – however, she paid with her life, unable to cope with the fact that she was not considered pretty enough. The tone of both works is uneasy: in Girl, the reader from the very beginning suspects a climax that never comes, whereas, in Barbie Doll, it does. Peace found in death – the oxymoron of the happy ending occurring in tragedy underscores how absurd the expectations of women are. It is the main theme of both the poem and the short story, alongside the themes of parenting and perception.

Females are prepared to be future mothers and wives practically from birth – they are not allowed to be children. In Barbie Doll, the symbols of that are gendered toys presented to the protagonist in early childhood. The name of the poem is a symbol as well: it is a reference to how society degrades women and objectifies them. The girl’s endless list of the mother’s demands is symbolic of the lack of freedom that girls have – especially compared to boys. It is indicated by one of the mother’s remarks: she tells her daughter not to squat down to play a game as boys do because she is not one of them. That emphasizes that girls are viewed by society as something entirely different – and they must act accordingly. One can hardly imagine a boy being given instructions and directions that would teach him that society has decided for him who he should be. Therefore, both works call for reflection on how unfair the treatment of women is and how growing up a woman can be a deeply traumatic experience.


McBean, S. (2018). The feminist 1970s. In American Literature in Transition, 1970–1980 (pp. 352 – 364). Cambridge University Press.

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