I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Barbie. As a male, she represented the “pink” aisle — a literal “no man’s land” in the toy department where most boys fear to tread. As a father, she epitomized a package of narrow, rigid gender stereotypes that I was afraid would limit my girls’ choices rather than broaden their horizons.
The record of how Barbie has been merchandised to girls is spotty at best. From her unrealistic body image, to the book “How to Lose Weight” that was included in the 1963 version. (The advice given? “Don’t eat.” It also came with a scale permanently set at 110 lbs.) Or the 1992 version that perkily exclaimed, “Math is hard!” Or the 2009 “Totally Tattoo Barbie” that came with two tramp stamps — one for Barbie, and one for the little girl who bought her.
Over and over again, Barbie has stuck a bubble-gum-pink high-heel in her mouth, sending bad messages to little girls wrapped in a cheerful “girl power” package. Sure, she showed girls that they could be doctors or astronauts — but only if they were also 5’9″ blonde Amazons with flawless makeup and breasts the size of volleyballs.
Psychology professors Aurora Sherman of Oregon State and Eileen Zubriggen of UC Santa Cruz shared many of the same reservations about Barbie. The wanted to investigate how playing with sexualized dolls affected young girls. But rather than focusing on how it affected their body image, as many studies have done before, Sherman and Zubriggen studied how the dolls affected their career aspirations.
From the press release regarding the study:
Thirty-seven girls between four to seven years old from an Oregon college town were randomly assigned to play for five minutes with either a sexualized Doctor Barbie or Fashion Barbie doll, or with more a more neutral Mrs. Potato Head doll. The girls were then shown photographs of 10 occupations and asked how many they themselves or boys could do in the future.
The girls who played with a Barbie doll – irrespective of whether it was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor – saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys. Those girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys.
The two Barbie dolls were identical except for clothing, with unrealistic bodies, extremely youthful and attractive faces, and long full hair. The researchers believe that the doll itself trumps the role or career aspirations suggested by its costume.
“It’s sobering that a few minutes of play with Barbie had an immediate impact on the number of careers that girls saw as possible for themselves” Zurbriggen said. “And it didn’t matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or as a pediatrician, suggesting that the doll’s sexualized shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.”
“Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything’ as the advertising for this doll suggests,” said Sherman. “But girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves.”