Placing a Price Tag on Identity

Picture taken by Mercedez A.

While walking through the doll aisle at Target, a friend of mine took this picture of two Barbie “Fashion Assistants.” Although skin color is the only difference between the two dolls, their prices differ by four dollars. Whatever the reason behind these numbers, the prices’ societal consequence is diminished self-image for women who identify with these dolls.

Charles Horton Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory can help explain the societal impact of the price gap between the two dolls. The concept is based on the way people view themselves in a mirror. The person’s reflection represents their view of themselves in the context of how others view them. Thus the person operates as an object, a projection to the world, as opposed to a thinking, feeling subject. This external perception helps form their identity, and the enhancement of that identity depends on a favorable or unfavorable evaluation from the outside world. As people buy these dolls, the unfavorable evaluation of their ethnicity shapes their identity through Cooley’s three-step process: people imagining as they appear using the doll as a model, people believing that others judge them based on their skin color, and people developing feelings of shame when they draw a connection between the price of the doll and their individual worth.

The higher price on the so-called “White” doll represents worth compared to the lower price of the so-called “African American” doll, which represents diminished worth. These translations then communicate to people that, depending on their skin color, they are either of a superior or inferior status. This perspective can lead to a negative outlook on one’s identity, and therefore fuel their distortional self-conception.

Questions for Research:

1. How does the phenotypic makeup of dolls affect society’s perception of race?

2. How does the Barbie empire influence young girls?

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4 thoughts on “Placing a Price Tag on Identity

  1. Wow! What a great find! I can’t believe that the White dolls cost more than the African American dolls- as if the White dolls don’t already get bought more than the African American dolls. There was a Psychology study- the Clark Doll Experiment in 1939- that gave young girls naked Barbie dolls and when they asked the girls questions about which dolls were ugly and which dolls were pretty, the African American girls said that the White dolls were prettier than the African American dolls. Society had told them that White women were more beautiful than black women and thus they had a diminished sense of self- so much that when asked which doll they looked like, they said they looked like, they said the white dolls.

  2. This is a very interesting and disgusting thing to see. I can hardly believe that they actually would price the White doll at higher price than the price of the Black doll. This is a great example of how the cultural industry and society continue to put a value on certain social identities over others. I can not imagine being a parent buying their children a doll and see how there are different price based upon skin color. It only explain how people of color often internalize negative stereotypes and forms a oppression from so many forms of socialization.

  3. Wow!! this post really surprised me! I am half white and half black and as a child my mom always bought my sister and I both the black and white versions of each doll we had. I called to ask her if they were always priced differently and she said that they usually started out the same price but so few people would buy the minority doll that they would but them on sale and on clearance after a certain period of time. I don’t know if the manufacturers are to blame because what else should they do if people wont buy the minority dolls? But still so sad.

  4. This is one of the most offensive contemporary forms of racism that I have witnessed. Im just left wondering why is it that Target does not even try to hide their internalized feelings on racism and the worth of racial and ethnic identities. Also, how does a parent respond to their young daughter asking about the price difference? The demented part about this is that there are still people who deny the existence of racism in this country.

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