Between the lines where the history lies, there is a voice inside

When fighting for equality and justice and participatory democracy ‘in general’, women become tired of just making tea for the revolution, sleeping with the leaders, and typing their manuscripts.

-D. Dahlerup (1986) The New Women’s Movement

Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” and “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” bring to light the struggle between societal views on women and their inability to measure up to societies idealized femininity. With voice and historical context, I will identify how both play an intricate role in fully understanding a piece of literary work and the role that historical context and voice played in both of Piercy’s poems. Piercy takes the Barbie Doll and your typical homemaker to prove a major point that is grounded in the second wave feminism movement throughout the United States from the early nineteen-sixties to the late nineteen-nineties. A strong advocate for women’s independence Marge Piercy says that, “Women need to have an independent existence and protect that.” “Barbie Doll” provides us with an example of how fatal it can be when one does not possess a sense of independence while  “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” allows us to see the beginning of women standing up for themselves and the initial stages of developing independence.

The Barbie Doll has been an iconic symbol for women used for years. The icon has become the definition of femininity and true beauty which many women strive for. Barbie, made by Mattel, made her first appearance in 1959 introducing the toxic idealized femininity into society. Invented by Ruth Handler, a Polish immigrant living in Colorado, we are left to wonder what her intentions of the creation were initially. According to Alice Van Wart, the poem “scathingly condemns contemporary expectations placed on women concerning their appearance (Wart).” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines expect as “to consider bound in duty or obligated”.  I agree with Wart’s take on the poem. Piercy’s voice is very strong in “Barbie Doll” showing us how society tells us what we are supposed to be as girls and women. In the first stanza of “Barbie Doll” Piercy points out what we are expected to play with as young girls which includes; dolls, miniature GE stoves, irons and lipsticks. Piercy does not describe the Barbie Doll but shows us that the girl being described falls short of this iconic beauty that we are all familiar with.

In fact, in an article done by Phillip Frisk titled “In Circle on the Water by Barbie Doll” the author asks the reader to consider what issues women may have when trying to relate to an iconic image of “ideal beauty” that is “imposed on them” (Frisk 39)? “Barbie Doll” is an exemplary example of what happens when women feel like they cannot measure up or relate to the iconic beauty.  In the second stanza Piercy makes it known that this girl was very healthy and intelligent, two things that are overlooked by everyone else around her. Instead, “she went around apologizing” (Piercy 855) because the girl knew how everyone saw her. She appeared to herself and to others as a “fat nose on thick legs” (855).

In the third stanza again we hear what the girl was advised to do and to be. Piercy says, “her good nature wore out” (855) which shows us that it was a challenge to keep up the act of being “coy” and “coming on hearty” (855). The online dictionary describes “worn out” as “to exhaust, as by continued strain; weary”. The girl became weary and thus offered up her nose and her legs resulting in the ending of her life. In the last stanza of “Barbie Doll” the voice is very sarcastic. A fake, putty nose, was plastered on the young girl in her casket and finally everyone thought that the girl looked pretty, “Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said./Consummation at last./To every woman a happy ending (855).” The last stanza is sarcastic because this girls happy ending was her death. She spent her whole life running from what people wanted her to be and the only time she achieved it she wasn’t there to actually enjoy the moment because she killed herself, so her happy ending wasn’t really happy at all. In an interview done by Patty Tomsky  for Spare Change News Piercy said, “This country is so much more sexist than many others. Ageism and sexism here are rampant. Women over 40 aren’t supposed to exist in this country unless they have had 800 different medical procedures.” The point is, the idea of being naturally beautiful at 40 is becoming less and less likely as society tells women that they aren’t beautiful unless they’ve had medical procedures done to themselves to “fix” the flaws.

In another poem written by Marge Piercy ten years later—in 1983—these same issues surrounding women are still prominent. Twenty-nine years later this material is still very relevant! So what can we learn from what Piercy is saying? Marge Piercy wrote the sentences in “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” in a way that makes you feel the anger boiling inside of the women in the kitchen. The sentences use a lot of longer words and are punctuated just before you run out of breath; they are written almost as a rant. Piercy nails the expectation of men when she says, “food they’re supposed to bring with calico smile on platters glittering like wax (Piercy 901).” My second source is from The American Journal of Sociology titled “The Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movementby Jo Freeman. The article starts out talking about how no one understood why there was a second-wave of feminism all of a sudden during the nineteen-seventies (Freeman 792). Researchers tried their best to examine the socioeconomic status of women during this time and concluded that there was no change that could have caused uproar such as this. Many more pages into the document the four reasons for women’s liberation in the sixties is clearly defined:

(1) the growth of a preexisting communications network which was (2) co-optable to the ideas of the new movement; (3) a series of crises that galvanized into action people involved in this network, and/or (4) subsequent organizing effort to weld the spontaneous groups together into a movement.( 794)

Finally, people understood the reasons that women were acting out and “burning dinners” (901).  I had to laugh to myself as I was reading Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir; Marge Piercy’s personal story in a book. She says “I do 90 percent of the cooking, but not in the morning. Me in the kitchen when I am half asleep is an accident in the making (Piercy 6).“ I cannot help but wonder how Piercy had been personally affected by this poem that she wrote. She does admit to being the cook in her house. With the amount of anger and disgust that is in this poem one would assume that she did not want to be expected to be the household cook; but that maybe it was okay if the expectation was not there. “In Marge Piercy (1936-)” by Jeffrey W. Hunter, Hunter describes how the authors’ writing “is praised for its intensity, clarity, and important social message (Hunter 217).” The article is set up to talk about the different pieces of writing from a very objective point of view and then it goes into many different critiques of different poems and books that she has written.

Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” and What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” shed light on struggle between societal views on women and their inability to measure up to societies idealized femininity. In my research, I discovered that there are some incongruities between what society believes women should do and be, and what they want to be. In both poems, you can feel the frustration and disgust that Piercy feels towards society.  In fact, you can feel the frustration that women as a whole feel towards these ideas that people somehow arrived at. You may argue that these poems are not rooted in the second wave of feminism, but when you dive into research about Marge Piercy and learn about her background as a feminist, it becomes blatantly clear that these were her beliefs. As Piercy said women need to be independent and exist outside of these stereotypical assumptions as to what women are supposed to be and do. The issue that is at hand here begins and ends with the “expectations” that society is placing upon women. To be clear, these are not expectations that are chosen by women—but that are forced upon the gender—which in turn makes them undesirable to many. Moreover, you can see how important it is to consider historical context and voice together as you analyze poetry and other literary works. These two thinks allow us to understand a piece completely as a whole, without jumping to conclusions without background information.

Works Cited

Dahlerup, D. “Quotations on Second Wave Feminism.” Quotations on Second Wave

Feminism. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://pers->.

Freeman, Jo. “The Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement.” American Journal of

 Sociology 78.4 (1973): 792-811. JSTOR. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.

Frisk, Philip. “In Circle on the Water by Barbie Doll; Marge Piercy.” The Radical Teacher 39

(1991): 38. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. < .>.

Hunter, Jeffrey W. “Marge Piercy (1936-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism 128 (2000): 215-

75. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.

Piercy, Marge. Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir. New York: William Morrow, 2002. 6. Print.

Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll.” 1973. Comp. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. The Norton

Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 855-901. Print.

Piercy, Marge. “That Smell in the Kitchen?” 1983. Comp. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays.The

Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 855-901. Print.

Tomsky, Patty W. “SpareChangeNews.” SpareChangeNews. N.p., 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Nov.

2012. <;.

Wart, Alice Van. “Overview of ‘Barbie Doll’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9.

Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.


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