Playing With Barbie Dolls Could Limit Girls’ Career Choices
Girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than for boys, study shows.
In one of the first experiments to explore the influence of fashion dolls, Aurora M. Sherman, an Oregon State University researcher, found that playing with Barbie dolls has an impact on how girls view their role in the world.
Barbie, introduced in 1959, was the first "fashion doll," with an emphasis on her clothes and appearance. Previous research has shown that the way Barbies are physically formed and dressed communicates messages of sexualization and objectification to girls.
Sherman's research aimed to examine how Barbies might influence girls' career aspirations. In her experiment, girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor's coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn't have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
Findings of the experiment, published in the journal Sex Roles, showed that girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys, whereas girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
Additionally, there was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Sherman noted, however, that childhood development is complex and "playing with a toy isn't likely to alter a child's career aspirations." Nevertheless, some toys such as action figures and Barbies can influence a child's idea about their future.
"More research is needed to better understand fashion dolls' effect on girls," Sherman said. It is possible that some girls are more vulnerable to adverse messages from fashion dolls. On the other hand, it is important for parents to make sure to incorporate a wide variety of toys with which their children can play.
Sherman is currently working on two other studies, including one about girls' perceptions of weight and body image based on doll size and shape.