Barbie vs. Mrs. Potato Head

How playing with different kinds of toys can change girls' outlook on life

By Hayley Krischer
March 21, 2014 7:28PM (UTC)
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David Lynch and a special friend want to talk to you about overpriced coffee.

I'm not a fan of oversexualized dolls and I see the importance of making sure that our daughters don't fall prey to the traps of stereotyping. But when I was a child, I was obsessed with my Barbies.

I lined them up against the wall so they were adjacent to their kingdom, the Barbie Dream House, and sheared their hair, one-by-one. In my mind, my Barbies wanted to step outside of their catatonic Barbie-fied state, do back flips off the Dream House balcony or rock climb the basement walls. My Barbies had grand ambitions because they were an appendage of me. I gave them their agency. I supported their hopes and dreams. I created their complex narrative.


Though I never explicitly said I was against Barbie once my daughter was born, I held off the Barbie experience until my neighbor’s daughter marched over with a bag of broken-down Barbies with matted hair and missing limbs. Slowly, we morphed into a full-on Barbie household. There were presents from sadist family members who took pleasure in gifting Barbie to the token family feminist. Between the television commercials and Pink Light District of Barbies at Target, I even said yes when my 5-year-old daughter asked for the Barbie Dream House. (I managed to sidle that large gift over to the grandparents.) There were some guidelines. I told her — and my son — that Barbie is an imaginary woman. No one looks like her. Her genitals are missing. Her feet are disfigured after years of wearing heels. “What are heels, Mommy?” my daughter said.

But I was the brave one out of my friends. Most of them were clear: They don’t like Barbie and they don’t let their daughters play with Barbie. Like, really against it. One vocal anti-Barbie friend even ran into Barbie drama when her mother-in-law, let’s call her Lucille Bluth, surprised my friend’s two daughters with a box full of Barbies when they visited. “Luckily these Barbies were already ransacked, made over and half-destroyed by other little girls before [Lucille Bluth] bought them at a yard sale.” My friend abandoned them “as fast as possible” after the visit. Another friend told me that the person most likely to give her 5-year-old a gift like that is her wife’s mother, “an eating disorder specialist who is not a Barbie fan.”

This isn’t anything new. Barbie’s damage potential (or reality) has been a standard argument for decades. Barbie has a negative influence on body image. Oversexualized dolls like Barbie influence young girls' self-sexualization. And now new research out of Oregon State University wants us to add “destroy career aspirations” to the list. In the study, published in Sex Roles, 37 girls from ages 4 to 7 years old were given “Doctor” Barbie, a fashionista Barbie or a Mrs. Potato Head. After playing with the doll for about five minutes, the researchers then asked the girls how many careers they could achieve in the future and how many of those careers could boys do. Girls who played with Barbie told researchers that they had “fewer career options than boys.” The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head also said they had fewer career options than boys — but the difference was much smaller. The result of the study: “Barbie is a sexualized toy, even when wearing the physician costume.”


Barbie isn’t the first or the last doll or otherwise to sexualize the medical profession. (Forget the countless slutty nurse costumes — I can’t help thinking of Cloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel.) “Doctor” Barbie also seems to have little to do with new research that shows women are dropping out of college STEM classes like flies. Therefore it’s hard to swallow that one doll could actually make our daughters believe that they aren’t worthy of any career path. The researchers of the study even cast their own doubt on the findings, telling the Atlantic's Olga Khazan, "Perhaps five minutes of play is not enough to allow the accessories and story of the Doctor Barbie to take effect."

But when I spoke to sociologist Shauna Pomerantz, an associate professor in the department of child and youth studies at Brock University, Canada, author of "Girl Power: Girls Reinventing Girlhood," and who has written a number of papers about girl culture, she suggested a greater implication. Pomerantz first took issue with the study itself, particularly with Mrs. Potato Head, who, she says, isn’t a comparable substitute to Barbie. “If I was a girl from Mars I wouldn’t think Mrs. Potato Head was a good doll to play with. Barbie is a human being. Yes, she’s sexualized, but nevertheless, [researchers] didn’t consider that human beings would be attracted to other human beings,” says Pomerantz. “No 4-year-old would think they’re close or similar.”

Here’s where it gets tricky for parents like me, or even like Pomerantz who has a 5-year-old. We know Barbie is sexualized. We know those dolls are “crap,” as Pomerantz says. But because our children are relentlessly marketed to, we can’t keep them from the culture. (Air quotes.) “Imagine the chain of events from keeping my daughter from playing with Barbie. I’d have to forbid her from girl culture and that seems cruel. If you don’t teach kids how to critically engage with the toy, or the doll, or the Barbie, then keeping them from it is useless. Then they don’t understand why. So if I forbid my daughter to play with Barbie, she’ll say, ‘Why?’ Or she’ll just think, ‘Mom is mean.’ And then you’ve lost it.”


Peggy Orenstein, who has been writing about the oversexualization of girls for years, discussed this study on her blog, as well as her own Barbie dilemma when her daughter was younger. Orenstein’s way of coping with it: She saw the creative side of Barbie, calling her daughter’s Barbie funeral a “tour de force of childhood imagination.” But like Pomerantz, Orenstein called out the bigger issue: “If playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact, what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”

As far as the study goes, it’s entirely possible that the girls, in that five-minute time span, were taken over by a cloud of glitter and blue eye shadow magic. As Khazan wrote in her article: “Maybe a six-year-old who gets the chance to play with a pretty, new doll doesn't exactly have firefighting on the brain for the next few hours.” Pomerantz explains it this way. “If you want to look at Barbie, you have to look beyond the doll. Girls have agency and are critical thinkers. And at the same time we’re living in a pretty difficult post-feminist world.”


Which is why it’s so frustrating every time a new study comes out about Barbie. Because living in Barbie world for a little while is like living in the rest of the world — it’s sometimes filled with fluff and sexy bikinis and cleavage. And in that world, as her parent, I deliver the message, “You are a girl who can do what you want.” “You are a girl who loves your body.” “You understand that girls come in different shapes and sizes.” And when you play with a glamorous, unrealistic-looking doll, sometimes you want to be like that doll, and that’s OK, even if it’s for all of five minutes.

Hayley Krischer

Hayley Krischer is a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter.

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