A new study published today in the journal “Sex Roles” purports to claim that young girls who play with Barbie dolls have limited career ambitions for themselves. That seems like a pretty tenuous link to me, but let’s explore it a bit further anyway. Here’s the basic lowdown of the findings that were published, as reported by Oregon State University, which funded the research:
Girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn’t have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
Girls who played with Barbie answered that they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
Based on these reported results, on the surface, one might say that Barbie exudes an inherently negative message that women are less capable in the career world than men. I, however, think the takeaway message here is much more subtle.
Let me pull out some lingo from my Ohio University days in Elementary Research Techniques class. In my opinion, what we have here is a spurious relationship. A spurious relationship is when two things appear to be directly related, but there’s actually a third unseen factor at play, also known as a lurking variable, that is the true cause of the scenario.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on here. Yes, some little girls played with Barbies, and yes, some little girls identified fewer jobs as possible choices for themselves than boys. But does that necessarily mean it’s Barbie’s fault? I think the end result here of perceived limited career prospects probably has more to do with the meaning that outside influences in these girls’ lives have placed on the “sexualized” characteristics of Barbie (aka the fact that she has boobs, unlike Mrs. Potato Head), rather than any wrongdoing on the part of Mattel.
I think it’s quite likely that the little girls in this study identify with Barbie, a social symbol of beauty, and that they also identify beauty with a lack of intellectual ability. It’s then possible that based on the feeling that they can’t be both beautiful and intelligent, subconsciously the little girls who had just finished playing with Barbie chose beauty over intelligence, and limited their view of potential career choices accordingly.
What I’m saying here, in a lot less words, is that the problem isn’t Barbie. The problem is that society paints a picture that pretty people can’t do stuff.
Case in point: a woman who shall remain nameless recently referred to me as “Malibu Barbie with a law license” in what I’m assuming was an effort to insult me, or cut me down. The reality of the situation is that I’d be doing well to be Malibu Barbie, with or without a law license! Malibu Barbie gets shit done! She’s a doctor, a veterinarian, she’s been to the moon, she drivers a convertible and she owns her own dream house! It’s Barbie’s dream house, not Ken’s dream house, people, and she holds all those titles without ever missing a root touch-up or a nail appointment!
What all of that boils down to is that Barbie is my freaking idol! Let’s stop projecting our prejudices onto Barbie, and attributing ideas to her that by all representations she clearly doesn’t condone. Embrace the fact that it’s perfectly acceptable to be appearance-conscious AND intelligent, friends.
PS If anyone from Mattel is reading this, PLEASE hop in your time machine and come out with 2010’s Graduation Barbie so I can complete my collection which currently consists of only 2006 and 2003! Please and thank you. Smart is Sexy! World peace!
The Lovely Lawyer