Supportive parents tell their daughters they can grow up to do just about anything. But this message of empowerment may be undercut by one of their girls’ favorite playthings: Barbie dolls.
In a newly published study, four- to seven-year-old girls who briefly played with a Barbie picked a more limited set of potential career options than those who had played with a Mrs. Potato Head doll. Surprisingly, this effect occurred no matter if Barbie was dressed as a model or as a physician.
“Playing with either type of Barbie reduced the number of careers that girls saw as possibilities for themselves, compared to the number they perceived as possible for boys,” write psychologists Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California-Santa Cruz. Their study is published in the journal Sex Roles.
The researchers argue that playing with Barbie conveys “sexualized messages,” helping to shape the idea in girls’ minds that looking attractive is all-important, as well as the notion that certain professions are suitable only for men.
Participants were 37 girls growing up in a mid-sized Oregon city. Fifty-nine percent of them owned at least one Barbie; 57 percent owned two or more of the famously big-busted, slim-wasted dolls.
The experiment began with a five-minute play session, in which each girl was invited to play with one of three dolls: Mrs. Potato Head, who came with a purse and hat, but lacked glamor or sex appeal; “Fashion Barbie,” who wore a “short-sleeved pink dress with black lace overlay and pink high-heeled shoes;” or “Doctor Barbie,” who wore a white lab coat over her “scrubs-style V-neck shirt” and “tight fitting blue jeans.”
Afterwards, each girl was shown 10 pictures of workplaces representing specific occupations. For example, she would be shown a photo of a diner, told “this is a restaurant, where a food server works.” After looking at each, she was asked two questions: “Could you do this job when you grow up?” and “Could a boy do this job when he grows up?”
Aside from the restaurant, which was considered gender-neutral, the girls were asked about five occupations usually associated with women (including teacher and librarian) and five usually associated with men (including pilot, doctor, and police officer).
The good news: “Girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many occupations as possibilities for themselves as they reported were possibilities for boys,” the researchers report.
However, it was a different story for those who played with either Barbie. They “reported fewer careers as future possibilities for themselves than they reported were possible for boys.” In other words, those who played with a Barbie doll “saw fewer future opportunities for themselves.”
“This was true whether the Barbie was dressed as either a fashion model or as a doctor,” Sherman and Zurbriggen add. “It appears that the doll itself trumps the role suggested by the costuming.”
While noting they were surprised by the Doctor Barbie findings, they point out that “adding a doctor coat and a stethoscope” may not have been sufficient “to override the sexualized clues embedded in the outfit.” A Doctor Barbie in plain medical scrubs may have had a different effect. So, presumably, might the realistically proportioned Barbie-like doll which, coincidentally, has just been unveiled by its inventor.
This is a very small study, of course, and it needs to be replicated. Also, the reasons behind these results are, necessarily, speculative—although previous research on objectification of women, and how it develops, leads to some pretty clear inferences.
The researchers argue that playing with Barbie conveys “sexualized messages,” helping to shape the idea in girls’ minds that looking attractive is all-important, as well as the notion that certain professions are suitable only for men. This notion is subsequently reinforced by movies, television shows, advertisements, and the like, as well as tradition-minded friends and relatives.
Could it be this brainwashing begins with Barbie?