On March 31, The Guardian published concerning new information about how the iconic doll may be disrupting more than body image. Barbie has been cropping up in more controversies recently, from the Mattel designer’s defense of the disproportionate doll, to a call for the Girl Scouts to end their relationship with the doll, and even in the creation of a more realistic Barbie doll to provide a healthier image to children. However, these controversies have focused solely on body image and not on some other negative consequences that arise from reinforcing stereotyped gender roles in children.
The results come from a survey of girls, aged 4-7, exposed either to Barbie or Mrs. Potato Head prior to answering two questions concerning their future. Specifically, the girls were given pictures of 11 different occupations, which were coded on the basis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics as: one neutral (restaurant server), five female-dominated (teacher, nurse, flight attendant, librarian, and day care worker), and five male-dominated jobs (construction worker, firefighter, pilot, doctor, and police officer). None of the pictures included humans but contained a setting and props to indicate the career and a prompt. For example, a picture of a fire station with the caption: “This is a fire station, where a firefighter works.”
The girls were then asked, based on the pictures, “Could you do this job when you grow up?” and then “Could a boy do this job when he grows up?” The results showed that after playing for just five minutes with Barbie as compared to Mrs. Potato head, girls were more likely to report that boys had more possibilities for future careers than themselves. Girls also reported being able to do a higher number of female-dominated occupations than male-dominated occupations, inferring internalization of gender roles.
These girls also had exposure to Barbie at home, with almost 60% of the children owning at least one doll, more often than not a fashion Barbie, rather than career-oriented Barbies (surprisingly enough, there are some, as long as the career outfits can be made fashionable enough). But owning a Barbie did not change the relationship between immediate exposure to the doll and the girls’ perceptions of their career options compared with males. To reflect the different types of Barbie dolls, this study utilized both a typical fashion Barbie as well as a Barbie dressed as a doctor, but the girls’ perceptions of their future career opportunities were limited regardless of which Barbie they were exposed to.
The idea behind this study is that early exposure to sexualized images may convey on overly sexualized emphasis of the adult world, leading young girls to internalize the message that their value is based on their sexual appeal rather than their brains or talents. Since this is one of the first studies to look at the effect of fashion dolls on girls’ perceptions of their future occupations, it marks an interesting new concern that will have to be explored further. In the meantime, there is a heightened need to find toys that serve as positive body image ideals and positive role models for our children.