Even though the new marketing slogan for Barbie dolls is “Be Anything. Do Anything,” the real message Barbie dolls send through is shown to have the opposite effect. A study from Oregon State University found that playing Barbie dolls could limit girls’ perceptions about future career options and affect their positions in the world.
Researchers Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen studied thirty-seven girls ages between four to seven from U.S. Pacific Northwest. Three types of dolls were randomly distributed to the girls: a Barbie doll wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes, a Barbie doll wearing a doctor’s coat and stethoscope, and Mrs. Potato Head with purse and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was the controlled variable in the study because it did not have apparent sexual characters. After the girls played with her toy for five minutes, they were shown photographs of ten different occupations; five of the careers were traditionally male-dominated, and the other five were traditionally female-dominated. The girls were then asked how many of the occupations they themselves or the boys could do in the future.
The result showed that girls who played with Barbie dolls, regardless of whether the doll was wearing a dress or a doctor’s coat, saw themselves being capable of doing fewer occupations than boys. In contrast, girls that played with Mrs. Potato Head reported that they themselves could do the same number of occupations as the boys. Researchers believed that the emphasis on clothes and appearance for Barbie dolls communicated sexualization and objectification to girls. “[It] is not a massive effect, but [it] is measurable and [is] statistically significant,” said Sherman. The study also agreed with objectification theory. Even though the effect was subtle, Barbie dolls were considered to be harmful to girls due to their sexually matured bodies. This image may give girls impressions that females should be attractive, and this has become an alarming problem in many adult women.
The exact mechanism of why this was observed is still under investigation. So far researchers could only confirm that early exposure to sexualized images may impose limitations on future career options to girls. Currently, the suggested solution to minimize this problem is for children, particularly girls, to have a variety of toys to play with. By playing with toys that are “gender neutral,” it is believed that girls would be more confident and have equal chance in competing for jobs in fields that are traditionally dominated by males.
By Kelly Liu