Societal Judgement Versus Self Judgement
Throughout history, the desire to be desirable has evolved into a concept that truly depicts how one perceives themselves and the world around them. Women are often incapable of accepting their imperfections, which tends to blind them from viewing what makes them special and unique individuals. There is a highly prevalent concept of insecurity and insignificant self reflection in both Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” and Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”. Although similar, Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” and Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” differ in their ideas of women’s flawed view of themselves and society’s flawed view of women; the use of satire to convey societal judgement, age differing perspectives, and symbolism allow the two works to build specific underlying meanings.
The free verse poem “Barbie Doll” was written by Marge Piercy and is told through a third person omniscient point of view. A little girl struggles with self image while entering early adolescence, and ultimately is fighting an internal battle against what she feels is expected by her peers. Although it may appear as if it is her own fault for not being satisfied with her looks, the society she is surrounded by proves to hold the reins on her. She was a “healthy, tested intelligent” young girl, yet her classmates only recognized this after she lay dolled up “in the casket displayed on satin” (Piercy). On the other hand, “Mirror” composed by author Sylvia Plath, is a poem spoken through a personified mirror and later a lake. Both the lake and the mirror are peered into by an older woman, and the inanimate objects voice to the reader an array of depictions. The depictions demonstrate an aging woman’s perception of herself that she no longer meets what is considered “pretty” by society’s standards due to the loss of her youthful features. This insecurity she feels may have been enticed by society, but ultimately it is derived from the actual repercussions induced by old age.
Societal standards are given light through the satire within each work, and can be analyzed further through the actions taken by each subject. Firstly, the satire in “Barbie Doll” is aimed at society rather than at the girl. Society influences girls to go through extreme lengths to achieve what is considered “perfection”. After stating that her classmates balked “You have a great big nose and fat legs,” the girl later “cut off her nose and her legs” (Piercy). This unreasonable judgement affected in the girls attempt to do whatever she could to please those around her. On the other hand, the satire in “Mirror” is prevalent through the woman’s unsatisfied judgement of herself, resulting in “tears and agitation of hands” (Plath). Despite what the people around her say, the reflection given in the lake is only the truth; She looks into her reflection and although it is not a biased judgement from someone else, she cannot even see her own true beauty without tears streaming down her face. Both women in the poems reveal their own insecurities and present signs of rejection. Through the writer’s point of view, the reader can receive a deeper understanding of the meaning behind each work. For instance, “Barbie Doll” is geared towards a younger generation because of the subject being an average school girl that strives to look like “Barbie”. There are various hardships faced during puberty and by providing an outside look on the situation, the author can voice the aspects that lead to the girl’s insecurities. Moreover, her dissatisfaction with herself is a direct result of her classmates criticism. “Mirror”, however, builds upon its central idea by encompassing multiple forms of personification. A mirror reflects, literally and figuratively, what it views of the aging woman. By using a nonliving object to narrate the poem, the meaning is further understood and becomes much more apparent. That being said, a mirror has an absence of emotions; rather than displaying an intentional and harmful critique from a societal standpoint, the mirror states that it is “not cruel, only truthful” (Plath). As published in Papers on Language and Literature through Southern Illinois University, William Freedman adds to this by claiming “when the mirror announces its identity, it shows an active speaker and it is not a passive reflector anymore” (Freedman 1993:157). Despite an unpassive perception, as Freedman states, the aging woman still feels ugly, and continues to dwell on the fact that she can’t keep what made her once desirable to society. She is more upset with what she sees in herself rather than what society sees in her. In each poem, one is viewing true beauty and one views societal beauty, yet they both lack acceptance.
While the speakers of each work aid in revealing distinct aspects of the themes, an array of symbols adhere to furthering the concept of flawed judgement. In “Barbie Doll”, the doll itself characterizes what a flawless and perfect woman should look like. As the girl lays in the casket, she symbolizes what girls are supposed have- a “turned-up putty nose, and dressed in a pink and white nightie” (Piercy). When a classmate initially had balked that she had a “great big nose and big fat legs,” this classmate served to symbolize what society sees her as (Piercy). Louise Deutsch has a belief that Piercy includes “big nose and fat legs” as a “synecdoche for the whole body, if not the whole person” (Deutsch). This would go hand in hand with the wrongful action of judging someone’s entire being by a minute imperfection of their appearance. Only after lying on her deathbed for all see, her new found beauty had been recognized. When the poem concludes with “To every woman a happy ending,” it is somewhat ironic in that it was the happiness of her peers that determined her desire to live and feel confident with herself (Piercy). On the other hand, “Mirror” represents the truth. It is reflecting an actual image of the woman rather than an outside opinion such as the classmates. In the second stanza of “Mirror,” the lake claims that the woman “turns to those liars, the candle or the moon” (Plath). This insinuates that the aging woman would rather view herself in darkness with the subtle light of a candle or the moon. These “liars” are actually doing her no good, as they are able to mask her genuine appearance unlike the mirror or lake would do for her. The moon and candlelight depict an association with society, and convey the dishonest reality of relying on other individuals to attain self assurance. In addition, the lake symbolizes the drowning of her youth, and both the symbols together represent how the aging woman’s younger self has been drowned by the mirror’s faithful reflection. Lastly, both works contain references to the word “pink.” In “Barbie Doll,” the little girl is “dressed in pink” and in “Mirror,” its opposite wall is “Pink, with speckles” (Piercy, Plath). Although the shared term is used in different contexts, the shared symbolism within the two works can be alluded to the relationship of pink and femininity. The Females in the poems, as well as females in general, portray an obstacle many women experience throughout the course of life- viewing themselves as less than average because of societal standards.
By their utilization of satire, age varying points of view, and distinct symbolism, Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” and Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” portray the negative expectations society has on beauty and the negative qualities women see in themselves as a result. These works prove that appearance has constantly been focused upon and no matter what age, many women fall victim to insecurity. Each and every human must not be forced to conform to the general public’s unrealistic standards, and rather aim to achieve goals that will benefit their own personal well being.