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“Boys can be anything,” Or how Barbie limits girls’ career dreams

By Jenn Chmielewski

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Okay, I admit it. As much as I would love to say that I was a little feminist socialist as a child, impervious to the sexualized gendered marketing scheme that is Barbie, I cannot. I was one of the 99% of girls that played with that skinny, large-breasted, blond haired plastic toy[1] and I thought she was the perfection of beauty (I didn’t realize at the time that a life-sized Barbie with her body proportions is physically impossible). My sisters and I would spend hours dressing Barbie in the coolest clothes and setting her up on romantic dates with Ken in his pink convertible. I learned a lot from Barbie: that looking good meant being thin (and white and blonde) and being the object of Ken’s affections was more important than my smarts and a career. Granted, I can’t blame just Barbie. I got these kinds of messages pretty much everywhere in the media (including the good old Disney movies I used to love) but still, Barbie was a huge part of my childhood. Fortunately for me, I also had some pretty positive influences like my mom who encouraged me to have confidence in my brains and dream big instead of being so focused on my looks. And I think I’m doing pretty well, but I still wonder how much playing with Barbie and her sexualized outfits might have impacted me, and how she might continue to impact what other girls see as their possible futures and careers.

It turns out that researchers Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen[2] have also been thinking about this question and decided to actually test it in a laboratory. They came up with a clever experiment to see how playing with Barbie affected the career options girls thought they could have versus what they thought boys could do. Since Barbie comes in a variety of career options nowadays, Dr. Sherman and Dr. Zurbriggen were curious to see whether a Barbie with a career might have a better career-focused influence on girls than a more old-fashioned appearance-focused Barbie. So they set up a lab and had girls who were 4-7 years old play with either a “fashion” Barbie, “doctor” Barbie, or Mrs. Potato Head doll (this was the control group, or the group the researchers designed to be the baseline that the other two groups could be compared to). Then the girls looked at pictures of different occupations that are either traditionally female-dominated (the usual suspects like teacher, nurse, flight attendant) or male-dominated (like doctor, police officer, construction worker). The researchers asked all the girls whether they thought they could have the job in the picture when they grew up and whether or not they thought a boy could have the job when he grew up.

And what do you think they found? Well, it turns out that across the board, girls in this study thought that boys could have more careers than they could, especially when it came to the jobs that men tend to dominate, like firefighter and police officer. This finding kinda sucks, right? Girls just don’t think they can do as much as boys even when they are little kids. Depressing. But the researchers also found differences between the girls based on which toy they played with. It probably won’t surprise any of you that the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head actually reported feeling like they had more career options than the girls who played with Barbie did. And that was for girls playing with both the “doctor” Barbie and “fashion” Barbie. Barbie as a doctor apparently doesn’t open up girls’ career dreams anymore than Barbie as a fashionista.

So aside from pointing out yet another depressing way that girls get sexualized and limited by toys, what do these findings tell us? Well, the good news here is that we now know that not playing with Barbie is better for girls. This points to the possibility that other kinds of toys might have the potential to be really positive for girls. The issue is that so many “girl” toys are built around appearance whereas “boy” toys tend to be about action and strength and much less so about the attractiveness of toys (google search ‘toys for girls’ and ‘toys for boys’ and you’ll see what I mean). But if there were more toy options like Mrs. Potato Head for girls that centered on the ‘doing’ of play without the distraction of thinking about how attractive our toys are, this might allow more room for imagination about what we want to achieve and do rather than what we want to look like. The SPARK petition of LEGO to create more toys for girls was a great start to building a world of play that encourages girls’ achievement rather than constricts it. Now, how to get rid of Barbie is a scheme we can come up with another day…

I loved playing with my Barbie (and wanted to be her) as a kid but when I got older I realized I had a lot more to offer the world than just my looks. Maybe it’s partly because of Barbie that now I am so interested in understanding how sexualization impacts girls’ lives and dreams (although I am certainly not going to be thanking her any time soon). I do know that if and when I have a daughter, there will be no Barbie dolls in the house, but I also know that Barbie isn’t the only culprit. If we really want to empower girls to dream big and have the power to be whoever they want to be (whether that is a doctor or fashionista), then we have to dismantle a whole lot of oppressive systems. But hey, our revolution can start out with one toy at a time.

[1] Rogers, A. (1999). Barbie culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

[2] Sherman, A. M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2014). “Boys can be anything”: Effect of Barbie play on girls’ career cognitions. Sex Roles, 70, 195-208. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0347-y

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