Barbie: A Toy with a Lasting Influence

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

Barbie: A Toy with a Lasting Influence


Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Playing with Barbie dolls may limit a young girl's ideas about what she can do with her life, an Oregon State University study suggests.

In a carefully controlled laboratory study, OSU researcher Aurora Sherman had individual girls play with Barbies - and a control group play with Mrs. Potato Head - and then put depictions of 10 individual careers in front of the girls.

"Could you do this job when you grow up?" the researcher asked each child.

Then, "Could a boy do this job when he grows up?"

The girls who played with Barbies saw themselves in significantly fewer careers than the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Heads, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Sex Roles.

"Girls are learning something from the toys they play with," Sherman said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "If parents are interested in these results, they might want to take a look at their daughter's toy box, and if it's heavily into fashion dolls, maybe they can try to diversify that toy box a little bit."

Barbie has been prominent in the news in recent weeks after Sports Illustrated magazine raised a ruckus by featuring the doll in its annual swimsuit issue.

Pittsburgh artist Nickolay Lamm cranked up the noise Wednesday by announcing that he would manufacture a Barbie with an average 19-year-old woman's body, as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which makes Mattel's toy look like an alien by comparison.

"Barbie is definitely a cultural touchstone that people really, really love - or really, really don't love," said Sherman, who is an associate professor in OSU's School of Psychological Science.

Sherman said few researchers have tried to understand Barbie's effect on young girls through controlled laboratory work. Most previous research involved surveys of college-age women.

Picking a future

A whopping 99 percent of girls ages 3 to 10 have owned at least one Barbie doll, the researchers said.

Sherman and her co-author, Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, sought to isolate the doll's influence.

They brought 37 girls ages 4 to 7 into a laboratory at OSU.

Researchers tested each girl individually, allowing them to play with either a fashion Barbie, a Doctor Barbie or a Mrs. Potato Head.

They asked each girl to look at pictures of work spaces that illustrated 10 occupations - half male-dominated and half female-dominated: construction worker, firefighter, pilot, doctor, police officer, teacher, librarian, day care worker, flight attendant and nurse.

"The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head told us that they could do approximately the same number of those 10 jobs, in the future, as they thought a boy could do," Sherman said. "They didn't distinguish between the number of jobs they thought they could do and the number of jobs they thought a boy could do."

But the girls who played with either Doctor Barbie or fashion Barbie could see themselves doing fewer jobs.

For Mrs. Potato Head players, girls said they could do the equivalent of 4 to 4.5 (out of five) jobs compared with 4.5 jobs they believed boys could do.

But for Barbie players, girls said they could do 3.3 (of five) jobs compared with 4.7 jobs they thought boys could do - a statistically significant difference, Sherman said. …

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