Mattel’s omnipresent Barbie, popular as she may be ever since her inception in 1959, has certainly faced her share of controversies. Her unrealistic body image and overall female portrayal have been widely criticized by feminists, and it turns out they’re not so far off in their judgments.
Despite the many aspirational roles Barbie has played in her lifetime – everything from veterinarian to presidential candidate – she doesn’t quite make the “role model” cut. According to a recent study published in the journal Sex Roles, playing with Barbies may actually inhibit career ambitions among young girls.
Researchers of the study gave groups of girls aged 4 to 7 one of three dolls to play with: Barbie dressed as a fashion model, Barbie dressed as a doctor, or Mrs. Potato Head. Afterward, the girls were presented with 10 different occupations and asked which ones they could one day do opposed to which a boy could do. The girls who played with either Barbie envisioned themselves in more traditional “pink-collar” jobs, like teacher, flight attendant, or librarian, with fewer career options than boys.
Apparently, it doesn’t matter what outfit you put Barbie in – the study found that her sexualized figure rules over any attempt at promoting diverse careers for girls.
Even more interesting is that good ol’ Mrs. Potato Head actually encouraged greater variety in girls’ views of their career choices. Although Mrs. Potato Head’s “potato figure,” for lack of a better description, clearly does not represent a female’s body, girls who played with her did not feel as limited and could imagine their future careers as firefighters, pilots, or police officers.
So in this case of Mrs. Potato Head versus Barbie, the dolled-up spud with detachable features prevails over a tiny waist and perfect hair. Sorry Barbie, but it appears the slogan that girls can “be anything” just like you may fall short of its intended effect.
What does this mean to a mother hoping to promote diverse interests and strong ambitions within her little girl? Oregon State University’s Aurora M. Sherman, one of the study’s researchers, says it is important to make sure your child has “a wide variety of toys to play with.” Rather than a heavily-gendered toy box, why not throw in some alternative options, like blocks, play dough, and cars!
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