While Barbie was once as stereotypical as G.I. Joe, in modern years she can 'be anything.' Ken is still kind of annoying, however.
Yet to some it is not enough. Barbie must go. You won't be surprised to find that an article in Sex Roles, which touts itself as "an interdisciplinary behavioral science journal offering a feminist perspective", finds that Barbie is still holding girls back. You can save yourself all the heteronormative jargon about objectification theory and just read this overview.
Psychologists Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, conducted an experiment to show how playing with fashion dolls influences girls' perceptions about what jobs they can do. They described their findings as "sobering" despite the fact that they are exactly the results they set out to find, using their methodology.
But bold claims based on weak observational studies using small samples get mainstream media attention, and this will be no different.
Sorry NASA, Astronaut Barbie hurts the interest of girls in being astronauts. A journal about the science of feminism says so. Credit: Mattel
37 girls ages 4-7 from the US Pacific Northwest 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 ten 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 sexy doctor – saw themselves in fewer occupations than they saw boys. 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 the clothing. The researchers speculate that the doll itself trumps the role or career aspirations suggested by its costume. They further speculate that this could be because of the well-defined Barbie perception that most young girls have about the doll's appearance and her sexually mature body shape.
Sherman and Zurbriggen found the girls' response to be consistent with objectification theory according to which there is a restriction to women's sense of what is possible. The results are also line with feminist/social science claims that the possibility of being female and not sexy or objectified is becoming extremely difficult for adult women.
Actual employment statistics don't bear that out - private-sector engineering, which is regarded as male-dominated, pays women better than any occupation in America, and no one thinks of engineers as being sex objects. Meanwhile, environmental activism, which has far more women than engineering, has a salary-gender gap even greater than the White House has - and PETA ads constantly show that sex and objectifying women is of utmost importance to them.
"Perhaps Barbie can 'Be Anything' as the advertising for this doll suggests, but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves," says Sherman, who further speculates in their press release 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."
So just adding a Science Barbie would not help girls want to go into science - it might even hurt. The doll controls their lives.