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The psychology of Barbie and Ken: PO’s Dr. Fider consults with Mattel, Inc.


July 25, 2017

Categories: Blog

Published: July 25, 2017

Dr. Carlene Fider visited Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design to work with the college’s Designmatters department on “Imagining the Future of the Dreamhouse,” a design studio course in partnership with Barbie and Mattel, Inc. Fider’s goal was to help the team learn why diversity, social justice, and the psychology of child play could all be influential factors in the Barbie brand.

A hearty meal and a decent wardrobe are a given for the everyday person. But in the case of Barbie, kitchens and bedroom closets become a voyage. A casual browse at a Barbie mansion shows off more than just the typical refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher. She can do everything from make pasta from scratch to prepare tea. Even the campers have elaborate spice racks and fruit trays. Expect plenty of mirrors, purses, hats, and clothes in the bedroom. And the living rooms have everything from fireplaces to keyboards and a bar area.

But it is still a newer perk to see a Barbie office area within the home. Compare the plain Barbie home office with a laptop and printer to the elaborate grocery store (conveyor belt included), and there still seems to be the same pattern of food and fashion. Of course, it’s all in pink.

When it’s time for Barbie to get a home makeover

Dr. Carlene Fider

“Re-evaluating what Barbie homes should look like is one of the things that we spoke about,” says Dr. Carlene Fider, a Pacific Oaks faculty member, who recently consulted with Designmatters about diversifying the Barbie brand as it relates to the concept of home. “One young lady asked how could she create a room where Barbie could be engaged in drawing art or doing architecture, which I thought was amazing. Frequently we don’t see Barbie portrayed in that light.

“What you put on a design table, for example, could open children’s minds about playing with toys in a different way. If we give them more opportunities to play with things differently, they’re likely going to gravitate toward that. Creating too much of a standard for them may not be the best thing because you’re boxing them in.”

Experience plays a significant role in each person’s development of the prefrontal cortex. The more stimuli that children are exposed to, the better the chance of improving on complex decision-making, maturation, and preparation for growing up and out into the world.

“We want their prefrontal cortex to develop naturally,” Fider says. “We’re giving them a script even though it’s unwritten. We want to find ways to help them to think more broadly even though there are some restrictions that you have to use for certain toy designs. My goal is for toy makers to think broadly within the restrictions to paint a better experience for children.”

How Ken’s physical makeover aims diversity goals in right direction

Ken has recently gone through a notable transformation. Children playing with Barbie’s longtime boyfriend/husband will see him as someone who isn’t always blue-eyed with a blond, brushed-back hairdo. Now his hair ranges from a Caesar haircut, a bun, and a fade.

And Fider wants to make sure the diversity continues to expand, including the color range outside of the usual pink for Barbie and blue for Ken.

“When you look at the colors used, it tends to lean more toward one gender than the other,” Fider says. “The thought process that these designers are trying to improve on is considering general issues related to diversity when products are being developed. Right now too many toy manufacturers are still creating a toy that doesn’t always match the changes that are happening in our world and in our society.”

Big steps such as the LGBT Barbie mirroring the soccer player Abby Wambach are starting to show that toy manufacturers are indeed listening.

Why this Barbie fan still found the toy consultation challenging

Fider—whose educational background includes a Ph.D. in Family Studies, an M.S. in Marital and Family Therapy, and a B.S. in Psychology —jokingly admits that working with Designmatters came “out of left field” for her. She’d been a consultant before for another company, Whirlpool, and focused on career couples and workplace policies, but this was her first time consulting for a toy corporation.

Although Fider did play with Barbie dolls growing up, her younger self knew that “there was nothing impoverished about Barbie and there was a lack of diversity.” Because of this, Fider initially thought that the consultation project would be a harder challenge. She wasn’t sure how to connect Barbie to social justice and cultural sensitivity. However, she was delighted to find out that Designmatters was already a step ahead of her and wanted to have more options with Barbie so children did not feel pigeon-holed into a select few items to play with.

Outside of playing with Barbie dolls as a kid, Fider would also leave elementary school to sit in the back of college classrooms where her mother was teaching. Both she and her sister, Carla, ended up pursuing doctorates because of the role that their mother played. For that reason alone, Fider is in agreement that human role models can and will also influence a child’s outlook and prefrontal cortex development just as much, if not more, as toys will.

For students who also want to work on toy consultations, Fider strongly recommends taking courses in neurobiology and play therapy.

“Whether working as a toy consultant or in the child psychology field, play classes are very helpful. Learning the way children play can become an assistive tool for everything from traumatic experiences to learning that children are engaging pretty open-ended or close-ended, from colors to choosing the roles of their toys. With more play options, we can also continue to open their minds.”

Categories: Blog

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