Early Adolescents' Experiences with, and Views of, Barbie

By Kuther, Tara L.; McDonald, Erin | Adolescence, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Early Adolescents' Experiences with, and Views of, Barbie


Kuther, Tara L., McDonald, Erin, Adolescence


Developmental psychologists have long recognized the importance of play to children's development (Huizinga, 1950; Sutton-Smith, 1986, 1997). During play, children converse with their world and internalize elements of society, such as norms, values, and adult roles (Huizinga, 1950; Kline, 1995; Koste, 1995; Singer, 1995; Fein, 1995). Children's toys are influential in the development of self-concept (Koste, 1995; Sutton-Smith, 1986, 1997), one of the fundamental tasks of childhood and adolescence. Typically, children choose favorite toys, and Sutton-Smith (1986) has argued that "particular toys enter into the lives of some children and become, as it were, central to their identity" (Sutton-Smith, 1986, p. 205). Toys present messages about gender, adult roles, and values that children internalize.

The Barbie doll is one of the most successful toys of the 20th century and, arguably, the icon of female beauty and the American dream (Rogers, 1999; Turkel, 1998): According to the manufacturer, every three seconds a Barbie doll is purchased. Barbie has been said to touch every girl's life (Rogers, 1999). There continues to be disagreement over the messages the Barbie doll sends and the toy's place in the lives of young girls. The extant literature about Barbie dolls tends to be opinionated and based on essays and popular media articles ("Barbie's Missing Accessory: Food," 1994; La Ferle, 1997; Lord, 1994; McDough, 1999; Suhay, 2000; Mulrine, 1997). Some claim that the toy represents the paradigm of adult female beauty to which young girls learn to aspire (Freedman, 1986; Turkel, 1998). It has been argued that Barbie dolls reflect a highly sexualized image and circumscribe girls' play by emphasizing prescribed roles and patterns of interaction. It is feared that by dramatizing stereotypical feminine roles during play, girls will internalize and later embody such roles (Freedman, 1986).

Despite the vocal opinions that abound about the influence of Barbie dolls on girls' development, there is a paucity of empirical research examining the impact of Barbie dolls on the lives of girls. Surveys have suggested that Barbie dolls are among girls' first or second "most favorite toys" between ages eight and twelve (Sutton-Smith, 1986). Sociobiological research with adults has indicated that the Barbie doll's body shape is perceived as attractive, perhaps because it represents health and fertility, from an evolutionary perspective, despite its physical impossibility (Margo, 1997).

Recently, and most pertinent to the present study, Rogers (1999) explored individuals' experiences with Barbie dolls. She gathered writing samples from male and female junior high school students, college students, and adults. Each group was asked to write about their experiences with Barbie dolls. All of the participants had knowledge of Barbie dolls, but mixed views about the doll's influence on girls prevailed. The majority of adolescent girls felt positively about Barbie, while boys distanced themselves from "play" with Barbie dolls, and instead reported disfiguring the dolls through a variety of methods. The college students and adults tended to acknowledge that Barbie dolls impact girls' ideals, but disagreed as to whether the influence was beneficial or detrimental to girls' development.

The study by Rogers (1999) suggests that young adolescents are unaware of the ways in which exposure to sexualized images and toys, such as Barbie dolls, may influence them. In light of the limited data, the present research examines young adolescents' experiences with, and views of, Barbie dolls.

STUDY 1

Given the mixed perspectives on the value to children of playing with Barbie dolls, focus groups were conducted to gather broad information about adolescent girls' views of the influence and value of Barbie dolls.

Method

Participants

Twenty 6th-grade girls (age range = 10 to 13 years) at a suburban middle school in Connecticut participated. …

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