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Derrick Z. Jackson

Barbie, crusher of aspirations

Presidential Candidate Barbie, circa 2004
Presidential Candidate Barbie, circa 2004Mattel

Being somewhat in the female empowerment business as a Scout volunteer and a former adjunct professor at an all-women’s college, I was intrigued by a study released last week that found that little girls who play just five minutes with Barbie have significantly fewer career aspirations than girls who play five minutes with Mrs. Potato Head.

Barbie has long been controversial in psychology circles for her effect on the body image of girls. But is it also possible that the doll is so over-feminized that ones dressed as doctors make girls less likely to see themselves becoming one?

Aurora Sherman, one of the study’s co-authors and a psychology professor at Oregon State University, thinks so. “For many girls, Barbie is part of getting a handle on how to navigate their way around the world,” she said.

Sherman and coauthor Eileen Zurbriggen, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, wanted to see if the doctor Barbie lived up to Mattel’s current “Be Anything, Do Everything” campaign it has with the Girl Scouts. Girls earn a patch for career exploration. Mattel said, “For over 50 years, Barbie has encouraged girls to dream and explore a world without limits.” To its credit, the Girl Scouts is a lead partner in the national campaign to ban the word “bossy’’ because it discourages girls from realizing their full potential.

Sherman and Zurbriggen had 37 girls ages four to seven play with either a Mrs. Potato Head, a doctor Barbie, or a fashion Barbie. Sherman and Zurbriggen found a world with huge, self-imposed limits. After playing with the dolls, girls were shown photographs of 10 workplaces and asked if they could do those jobs and if boys could do those jobs.


The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported that of the 10 careers, they could do an average of 8.3 of them compared to 9 for boys. But the girls who played with either version of Barbie felt only two-thirds as capable as the boys, aspiring to only 6.6 of the careers, compared to 9.5 for the boys. The effect of playing with Barbie was so pronounced, the girls felt less capable of achievement even in female-dominated occupations.


“Even the doctor Barbie seems to exaggerate the stereotypes girls absorb about themselves even at young ages,” Sherman said. “Why Mrs. Potato Head doesn’t do it is fascinating. One can guess it is because she’s not sexy. She’s a little bit frumpy. But Barbie reminds girls of women being sexual objects and plenty of studies of adult women show that when they are reminded of that in some way, they do worse in tests, and have less body satisfaction which can lead to esteem issues.”

Despite Barbie’s longevity, the study is one of the first to assess her impact on career dreams. Some consumer advocacy groups have already assumed the worst. The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Virginia-based Center for a New American Dream, have called for the Girl Scouts to end its partnership with Barbie and Mattel. The Associated Press reported that the Girl Scouts received $2 million from the toymaker for the “Be Anything” campaign.

I don’t have daughters, but I have watched many a girl in our co-ed Scouting unit in Cambridge climb to summits over 10,000 feet high, be elected as troop and crew presidents, and perform community service projects worthy of an Eagle Scout. As a professor, I have watched women learn how to travel to strange places and talk to total strangers to tease out amazing life stories. None of them did that in stilettos and frilly mini-skirts.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.