Who's in the Dollhouse? Research reveals surprising role models


This article originally appeared in Issue# 46

"No Ken, I don't want to go to a movie later, 'cuz I need ta work out first."
"OK, I'll be by in the vroom-vroom Ferrari to pick you up later."                                                        

—Five year-olds playing with a Barbie doll

"Yes, dear, try to get home, soon. The baby's sick and we need to take care of him."
—Mrs. Heart talking to Mr. Heart

"Out of my way. I'm She-Ra, princess of power. You can't stop me."
—Six year old assuming the identity of her doll

Once upon a time, every little girl was a Mrs. Heart. The dolls she dressed, fed and loved were her children. Her play trained her for her future as a wife and mother.

We've come a long way, Barbie.

The 1959 introduction of the Barbie doll represented a watershed in the history of dolls. Instead of mothering their dolls, children began to model Barbie's wardrobe, possessions and the exciting lifestyle they represent. Every little girl wanted to be like Barbie when she grew up.

Or did she?

When I saw the children at the Anna Bing Child Care Center in Los Angeles playing with Barbie, Mrs. Heart and She-Ra dolls, I became fascinated with the way their "make believe" varied depending on which doll they were playing with. The study reported here, conducted for the Institute for the Study of Women and Men at the University of Southern California on a grant from the Center for Population Options, investigated the female images presented to boys and girls by these three popular toys.

Being Like Barbie

For 30 years Barbie has represented the quintessential American Girl. She doesn't look good, she looks perfect. Her classic features and exquisitely coiffed hair are complemented by her perfect life-style: fashionable clothes, a shiny red Ferrari, a dream house, a desktop computer...and of course, a man (Ken), with whom to enjoy it.

The toy is a marketing dream. The average little girl has three Barbies to facilitate pretend interactions. And the clothes, accessories and environmental props for parents to buy are endless.

Psychologists claim there are social benefits to Barbie doll play; they say it provides an opportunity for little girls to learn how "big girls" behave and what they value. However, as researcher Brian Sutton-Smith observed, the Barbie doll image and the personas of most television characters correspond closely.

"Much more than a mere toy, Barbie has become an icon. She has come to represent much of what we, as Americans, most admire and fear about ourselves. She embodies our love/hate relationship with our consumption-oriented society."
—Marily Ferris Motiz, Popular Culture Reader

Alternatives to Barbie

Created by Mattel in 1985.
Manufacturing discontinued in 1987; nearly a million sold through 1988.

Children say she's most likely to:

    • Yell when confronted with conflict;
    • Think independenly;
    • Be out having an adventure;
    • Hold back tears.

Created by Mattel in 1959.
Five hundred million copies of Barbie and her friends sold through 1988.

Children say she's most likely to:

    • Talk it out when confronted with conflict;
    • Consult with others, yet think for herself;
    • Be out on a date;
    • Shed tears.

Created by Mattel in 1984.
1,260,000 white dolls, plus 27,000 black dolls sold through 1988.

Children say she's most likely to:

    • Run away and cry if confronted with conflict;
    • Ask advice before making a decision;
    • Be at home with her family;
    • Shed tears.

Also sold by Mattel, the Mrs. Heart doll, her doll family and their accessories support a traditional home environment and a mother whose first care is her family.

"The Mrs. Heart doll is a mother who loves her children. That's what the Heart family is all about: the love and warmth and caring of a family relationship," comments Candace Irving, manager of marketing/public relations and Mattel spokesperson.

Children playing with the Hearts not only practice motherhood and fatherhood; they also can imagine themselves the center of their mother's attention, which may appeal to some of the children whose mothers are part of the 68 percent of mothers of school age children who work outside the home.

Yet another Mattel toy, She-Ra the Magnificent is a spin-off from the popular Masters of the Universe television program. It was visualized as an action figure for girls, and although it was manufactured for only three years, She-Ra was still available in some stores in early 1989.

A doll-for-the-80s, She-Ra was designed to combine fashion and glamour with action and adventure. Following her introduction in 1985, the figure appealed to the female third of the Masters of the Universe audience.

"We found out that the way to portray power for little boys is with physical stamina and muscles. But for little girls it means being beautiful and having a strong body, but also to power to guide your own destiny," according to Mattel's former director of marketing Janice Varney.

Selling Character

The average two-to-five-year-old spends 23 hours a week watching television, making preschoolers a prime captive audience for child-centered commercials. In particular, toy companies create and market dolls accompanied by clothing, furniture and other props that suggest who the doll is, how its character would spend her time and what she would believe is important. These props, together with the doll's own features, contribute to a personality, a set of values, attributes and behaviors identified with the doll.

Toy stores are stocked with dolls like these, each of which communicates a different message to children. But are the children listening? Why do children choose the dolls they do and what are the implications of their choice? Do children internalize dolls they like as role models?

To find out, I conducted a research study at the center with 17 four-to-six-year-old children, both boys and girls (11 girls, six boys). Both sexes were asked questions designed to measure their perceptions of each doll's intended personality, focusing on her reaction to stress, emergencies and leisure time choices.

The Questions

    • What would Barbie (She-Ra, Mrs. Heart) do if one of her friends were mean to her and started calling her names?
      1. stand there and cry;
      2. try to talk to her friend about it;
      3. yell names back at her.
    • If Barbie (She-Ra, Mrs. Heart) had to decide something important, would she:
      1. ask her mother or teacher to decide for her;
      2. ask people's advice and then do what she thought was right;
      3. make a decision all by herself.
    • If she had her choice of what to do on a Saturday night would Barbie (She-Ra, Mrs. Heart) be:
      1. home with her family;
      2. out on a date with a boy;
      3. out having an adventure with friends.
    • If Barbie (She-Ra, Mrs. Heart) was watching a movie about a little girl who cries Because her dog is run over by a car, would she:
      1. cry a lot because she feels sorry for the girl and the dog;
      2. cry a little, but not be too upset;
      3. not cry at all because she realizes that these things happen and we have to be strong.

After images were confirmed, each girl was asked which doll she would like to have as a mentor, mother and friend. Boys were asked whom they would like to have as a girlfriend, mother and friend.

What the Girls Thought

What the Girls Thought
Mrs. Heart
Mrs. Heart
Mrs. Heart
What the Boys Felt
Mrs. Heart
Mrs. Heart
Mrs. Heart

Motherhood still wins out over glamour, at least for the girls in our small study. As the accompanying graphs show, Mrs. Heart was viewed as a model mother and preferred friend, thus winning two of the three categories. The girls were enthusiastic about her child-care role. "I like her beautiful babies," cooed one five-year-old. Girls also chose Mrs. Heart because they liked her and felt she liked them. "She's warm." "she wants to love me." "She's softer." were some comments.

She-Ra was seen as a good mentor, with more than twice as many girls picking her for that role than Barbie. "She-Ra has the most exciting life of all," confided one six-year-old. "I like her because she knows what she wants and how to get it," another commented.

Although Barbie was seen as a more congenial friend and mother than She-Ra, she was an also-ran in all three categories. Her status with these children contrasts strikingly with her marketing success, with 500 million Barbie dolls sold worldwide by late 1988.

Youngsters who did make Barbie their preferred choice in one of the three categories explained their response with reasons that revolved around her beauty, popularity and ability to engage in exciting activities. "She's tall," one child noted. "She gets to do a lot of things," said another.

Most of the children mentioned She-Ra's cartoon when making a reference to the doll, illustrating the influence of the television screen on children's perceptions. As one put it, "I want a friend who is a TV star."

What the Boys Felt

Although some studies show boys rejecting opposite-sexed heroes, the boys in this group clearly preferred the action figure She-Ra over other dolls. With over 70 percent preferring her as mother, girlfriend and friend, She-Ra was the clear winner over the other dolls. As one boy put it, "She-Ra is strong and smart. She knows what's happening." "She doesn't whine or cry," said another.

Mrs. Heart was the runner up with the boys, with some viewing her as "friendly." One five-year-old wanted Barbie as a girlfriend because he wanted to protect her, although he preferred She-Ra in the other categories. The rest of the boys scorned Barbie with comments like, "She-Ra's strong and really smart. All Barbie is worried about is wearing her clothes and living in her dream house."

The Image

What do the reactions of this small group of children say about the female images portrayed by these dolls? Are they truly role models or only incidental choices?

Certainly, the marketing experts who created these characters recognize the multifaceted roles possible for today's women. Evidently even a doll can't "have it all." Despite their differences, She-Ra, Barbie and Mrs. Heart each represent characteristics that might blend into the makeup of a modern woman struggling to integrate the various aspects of women's expanded roles.

Little girls who wanted "to be like" both She-Ra and Mrs. Heart recognized this split. The dolls provided images "to grow on," but not a model of integration.

The boy's future preferences are harder to predict. Will they continue to prefer powerful women? Or are they merely more comfortable as children with girls who match their masculine self-image?

Whatever the answer, it's clear that children will continue to shape their images of both female and male roles through their toys. And the toys they play with will continue to be determined by what the toy manufacturers — and the media — are able to sell.


Author Bio: 

Diana Foutz Daniele is the President of Diana Daniele Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Pacific Palisades, CA.