Girls who play with Barbie dolls tend to see fewer career options available to them compared with the options available to boys, according to a new study by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The study's authors, psychology professors Aurora Sherman of Oregon State and Eileen Zurbriggen at UC Santa Cruz, describe their findings as “sobering.” Their article “‘Boys Can Be Anything’: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls' Career Cognitions,” appears online in the Springer journal Sex Roles published March 5.
“This is one of the first studies to investigate how playing with sexualized dolls affects young girls, and also one of the first to look at the impact of such play on achievement or career aspirations, rather than body image,” said Zurbriggen, second author of the paper.
“Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything’ as the advertising for this doll suggests,” said first author Sherman. “But girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves.”
Sherman suggests that Barbie and similar dolls are part of the 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,” she said.
Sherman and Zurbriggen used girls’ dolls play to study the impact of gender role socialization, a process through which children learn to abide by culturally prescribed norms and which perpetuates gender stereotypical behavior.
Thirty-seven girls between 4-7 years old from an Oregon college town were randomly assigned to play for five minutes with either a sexualized Doctor Barbie or Fashion Barbie doll, or with more a more neutral Mrs. Potato Head doll. 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 a Barbie doll — irrespective of whether it was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor — saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys. Those girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys.
The two Barbie dolls were identical except for clothing, with unrealistic bodies, extremely youthful and attractive faces, and long full hair. The researchers believe that the doll itself trumps the role or career aspirations suggested by its costume.
“It's sobering that a few minutes of play with Barbie had an immediate impact on the number of careers that girls saw as possible for themselves” Zurbriggen said. “And it didn't matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or as a pediatrician, suggesting that the doll's sexualized shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.”