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Even “Dr. Barbie” may dampen girls’ career aspirations

March 5, 2014
Courtesy of Springer Science+Business Media
and World Science staff

E­ven though a mar­ket­ing slo­gan says Bar­bie can “Be Any­thing,” girls who play with the pop­u­lar doll see them­selves as hav­ing few­er ca­reer op­tions than boys, a study has found.

Even girls who had played with “Doc­tor Bar­bie” did­n’t see a full pal­ette of ca­reer op­tions as avail­a­ble for them­selves, the find­ings sug­gested. In­stead, an al­ter­na­tive, un­sexy “Mrs. Po­ta­to Head” doll seemed to do a bet­ter job of that.

Re­search­ers are sug­gest­ing the neg­a­tive ef­fect may re­sult from the “sex­u­al­ized” char­ac­ter­is­tics of Bar­bie and si­m­i­lar doll­s—re­gard­less of their pro­fes­sion­al cos­tumes.

Au­ro­ra Sher­man of Or­e­gon State Uni­vers­ity and Ei­leen Zur­briggen of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz con­ducted the ex­pe­ri­ment, which they called one of the first on how play­ing with dolls in­flu­ences girls’ per­cep­tions about fu­ture ca­reer op­tions. The find­ings, which the psy­chol­o­gists de­scribe as “sober­ing,” are pub­lished in the jour­nal Sex Roles.

Thir­ty-sev­en girls from the U.S. Pa­cif­ic North­west, aged be­tween four to sev­en years old, were ran­domly as­signed to play for five min­utes with ei­ther a Doc­tor Bar­bie or Fash­ion Bar­bie doll, or with Mrs. Po­ta­to Head. 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 ei­ther type of Bar­bie saw them­selves in few­er oc­cupa­t­ions than are pos­si­ble for boys, the re­search­ers found. The girls who played with Mrs. Po­ta­to Head re­ported nearly as many ca­reer op­tions avail­a­ble for them­selves as for boys.

The two Bar­bies were iden­ti­cal ex­cept for cloth­ing, the re­search­ers said, with un­real­is­tic, sex­u­al­ized bod­ies, ex­tremely youth­ful and at­trac­tive faces, and long full hair.

“Per­haps Bar­bie can ‘Be Any­thing’ as the ad­ver­tis­ing for this doll sug­gests, but girls who play with her may not apply these pos­si­bil­i­ties to them­selves,” said Sher­man, who sug­gests that Bar­bie and si­m­i­lar dolls are part of a bur­den of early and in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­u­al­ity placed on girls. “Some­thing about the type of doll, not char­ac­ter­is­tics of the par­ti­ci­pants, causes the dif­fer­ence in ca­reer as­pira­t­ions.”


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Even though a marketing slogan said Barbie can “Be Anything,” girls who play with the popular doll see fewer career options for themselves compared to boys, a study has found. Even girls who had played with “Doctor Barbie” didn’t see a full palette of career options as available for themselves, the findings suggested. Instead, an alternative, unsexy “Mrs. Potato Head” doll seemed to do a better job of that. Researchers are suggesting the negative effect may result from the “sexualized” characteristics of Barbie and similar dolls—regardless of their professional costumes. Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz conducted the experiment, which they called one of the first on how playing with dolls influences girls’ perceptions about future career options. The findings, which the psychologists describe as “sobering,” are published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles. Thirty-seven girls from the U.S. Pacific Northwest, aged between four to seven years old, were randomly assigned to play for five minutes with either a Doctor Barbie or Fashion Barbie doll, or with Mrs. Potato Head. 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 either type of Barbie saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys, the researchers found. The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys. The two Barbies were identical except for clothing, the researchers said, with unrealistic, sexualized bodies, extremely youthful and attractive faces, and long full hair. “Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything’ as the advertising for this doll suggests, but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves,” said Sherman, who suggests that Barbie and similar dolls are part of a burden of early and inappropriate sexuality placed on girls. “Something about the type of doll, not characteristics of the participants, causes the difference in career aspirations.”