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Student Study Shows How Barbie Affects Girls’ Ideas of Their Future Capabilities

Emily Coyle
Emily Coyle
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Can Barbie's career aspirations have an impact on the careers that girls choose?

A senior psychology major at Washington and Lee University has just completed a year-long study to determine whether or not young girls look to the iconic Barbie doll for messages about what they could or could not do as possible future careers.

Research has already shown that Barbie's physique can convey a negative body image to girls. But Emily Coyle, a senior psychology major, had a different set of questions in mind.

"I wanted to dress Barbie in more non-traditional career outfits, such as a firefighter or astronaut, and see if that affected how girls saw their future selves," she said.

So Coyle recruited 26 preschool girls with an average age of four and a half for her study.

First, she assessed the girls' career aspirations and how flexible they were in their gender attitudes. "I asked them about very masculine or very feminine jobs, and if they think that just men can do the masculine jobs, or that just women can do the feminine jobs, or whether they think both men and women can do the jobs," she said.

Most of the girls thought they could not do the non-stereotypical jobs.

Then Coyle dressed the Barbies in the non-stereotypical outfits. "The girls watched this transformation of Barbie while we had conversations that did not center on careers at all," she said. "For the most part, after we dressed the dolls, the girls said that they could do the jobs the outfits represented. Sometimes they would comment and say, ‘I've never seen a girl do that before, but, yes, I could do that job when I grow up.' So that was pretty cool."

Of the small number who said they couldn't do a job, the primary reason they gave was that the particular job was only for boys.

"I do think that girls look to Barbie for these messages about what they can or cannot do," said Coyle. "She is a model in and of herself, and simply changing the way she was dressed made a difference. Dolls that disconfirm stereotypes could be great for girls."

But Coyle pointed out that such dolls are not what you find in stores.

Barbie has had some gender-nontraditional careers over time, but the majority of those were special-collection dolls, so they cost more than regular Barbies and are typically marketed to collectors, not children. Of the career dolls most available to children, the careers are more traditional, or a more traditional spin on a less traditional career-Baby Doctor Barbie, for example.

But Coyle said that the most important issue is that very few of the Barbie dolls sold are career dolls. So even when Mattel does make a nontraditional career doll, it isn't reaching the average child.

"It's helpful to encourage children to keep their options open as long as possible, so they are choosing what they want to do and are not funneled into doing something simply based on their gender," she said.

Coyle will start a doctoral program in developmental psychology at Penn State University in the fall and plans to continue her research on this project. "It's really exciting," she said. "I want to look at a broader sample and expand it to examine how, for instance, black girls are affected by not being represented in the kinds of dolls Mattel sells. If you go into a store and can't find a black President Barbie, what does that mean?"

Coyle also plans to study another area. "If there's a message packaged in the toys we're giving to girls, there must be a message packaged in the toys we're giving to boys as well," she said.