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?