Barbie research is more than child's play for graduate student

What Emily Rose Aguilo-Perez did not know when she spent time as a child in Puerto Rico playing with Barbie dolls was that the now-56-year-old iconic doll would be the source of an equal amount — or more — of time she spends working.

Millions of young girls worldwide have played with Barbie dolls since 1959. Far fewer have chosen to adopt them as a research topic and subject of a doctoral dissertation. Aguilo-Perez, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction (women’s, gender and sexuality studies) at Penn State, is examining the influence of Barbie on Puerto Rican girlhood.

She spent two weeks in August serving a research fellowship at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, where she examined that facility’s collection of at least 2,500 dolls and — of course — accessories.

When TeenTalk Barbie uttered her “Math class is tough’’ statement in 1991, or when the Danish rock band Aqua in its 1997 production of “Barbie Girl’’ sang, “Imagination, that gives you creation,’’ who knew that Barbie’s life in plastic really would be a fantastic impetus for a deep-seated, doctoral disquisition?

“I don’t think I ever thought I’d want to study Barbie, although I played with Barbie, so I think that’s part of the reason,’’ Aguilo-Perez said. “In one of my courses with Dan Hade, he mentioned an anecdote when his daughter was young and she had this chapter book about Barbie. Everything was centered around fashion and being pretty. I think it was titled ‘Barbie: Queen of the Prom,’ or something, but it was mostly about buying things.’’

That sparked an interest to see what narratives were created and how they would play when girls read the book, Aguilo-Perez said. “As time passed I focused just on Puerto Rican girls and females with Barbie and how that playing with her or not playing with her kind of contributes to their own identities,’’ she said.

Girlhood studies is a relatively new field and it combines women’s studies with childhood studies and children’s studies, according to Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, an associate professor of education (language and literacy) and women’s studies who serves as advisor to Aguilo-Perez.

Reid-Walsh and Claudia Mitchell, of McGill University in Montreal, have edited a journal on girlhood studies for more than a decade. Both have researched Barbie for the Popular Culture Association, prompted when their daughters received Barbie dolls as gifts. “People said, ‘why would you be interested in looking at that?’ We said, ‘well, because girls play with it and therefore it’s important,’’’ Reid-Walsh said.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work on Barbie play and Barbie dolls and interviewed girls and my daughter’s friends. Newer generations of scholars are working on Barbie and doll play. There’s an issue of our journal devoted to doll play. There’s quite a lot of research on Barbie,’’ she said.

Soon there will be more. Aguilo-Perez is attempting to combine in her dissertation her interests in children’s literature, childhood culture, girlhood studies and women’s studies. “For me it’s important to focus a little bit on race and gender identity with Barbie,’’ she said. “With a lot of what I read there’s a lot of conflict even with people who have played with Barbies.

“It’s important to think about it in the context of Puerto Rico because we are a U.S. territory, but there’s a lot of tension in the identity of being part of a territory but also not identifying completely in the culture,’’ Aguilo-Perez said. “I want to see how maybe Barbie plays a role in individual identities, not the whole island, but these women who maybe played with the doll when they were little.

“Some of them, their parents wanted them to play with the Barbies that were not white and blonde because they wanted to have a different image of what they should look like. And some of them who maybe played but now as adults with children, they may not want that for their children. Different tensions and negotiations, I kind of want to explore that,’’ she said.

Aguilo-Perez returned to the island to interview about 19 women, some in groups and some individually, and she hopes to return and secure permission to speak with their daughters.

During her Rochester research fellowship, museum curators brought her hundreds of items that she would examine and photograph. “They had research about mothers and daughters and their play practices, how they used to play with dolls back in the 1910s and 1930s; I got information on how to approach interviewing mothers and daughters,’’ she said.

“You always do research on your own being a Ph.D. student, but you don’t necessarily feel like a researcher yet. Being able to do a research fellowship where you’re at a library and looking at objects, it gives you a feeling that 'I know what research is and I can do it,' ’’ Aguilo-Perez said.

She would like to sustain her research on girlhood studies — not just Barbie — and would like to teach courses on children’s literature, childhood studies and girlhood studies, she said. “Hopefully the project and theories and experiences in doing this research can help me develop courses on girlhood, or teach some of them, and continue research in that area,’’ she said.

“It’s an emerging field but it’s taken hold because there are still a lot of gender issues and girls are expected to be like princesses and there's not a lot available to them in terms of being more active,’’ Aguilo-Perez said. “I think a lot of scholarship is trying to intersect girlhood and other fields, such as girlhood and race, girlhood and class, girlhood and education.

“In that sense I see that it’s a growing field.’’

Aguilo-Perez, who earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, has received funding from a Bunton-Waller Fellowship and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. The Bunton-Waller is a fellowship for under-represented groups based on merit; the Hispanic Scholarship award amount has yet to be determined but will be between $500 and $5,000.

She also is a National Education Holmes Scholar and is part of a group of students selected to work with a faculty leader (Carla Zembal-Saul) and have the opportunity to attend workshops and conferences hosted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Reid-Walsh doesn’t think anyone prior to Aguilo-Perez has researched the Puerto Rican culture angle of the Barbie topic.

“There was apparently a Puerto Rican Barbie that was pulled because there was a problem,’’ Reid-Walsh said. “Barbie tends to be white. Girls in many cultures play with Barbie, but they play differently and their viewing of Barbie is different. I think that’s really interesting to explore. When you say 'Barbie,' people recognize it and often have an opinion. You can get debates going and take it from different angles.

“Popular culture is a big field; it’s respectable,’’ Reid-Walsh added. “Emily’s an exemplary researcher. She’s at the intersection of many great things.’’

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Last Updated July 28, 2017