Playing with a Barbie doll could limit a girl's view of her own career potential compared to that of boys. Playing with a Mrs. Potato Head doll doesn't have the same effect, according to to a study from Oregon State University.
The study, which included a researcher from the University of California, was published in the journal "Sex Roles."
It's not the only news this week about Barbie, who turns 55 this year. But more on that later.
"Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls' ideas about their place in the world," said Aurora M. Sherman, associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU, said in a written release about the study. "It creates a limit on the sense of what's possible for their future. While it's not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect."
"Perhaps Barbie can 'Be Anything' as the advertising for this doll suggests, but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves," Sherman told United Press International. "Something about the type of doll, not characteristics of the participants, causes the difference in career aspirations."
"Sherman and her research partner say the study proves that girls, even at a young age, can recognize the sexualized nature of Barbie, as well as her unrealistic body shape, and that these things feed into a girl's understanding of gender roles," wrote UPI's Brooks Hays.
Barbie was introduced in 1959. She is considered the first fashion doll because her appearance and clothing are an integral part of her appeal to little girls. OSU noted in its release that "past research has found that the way fashion dolls such as Barbie are physically formed and dressed communicates messages of sexualization and objectification to girls."
In the study, 37 girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly given one of three dolls: gussied-up Barbie in heels and dress; career Barbie dressed as a doctor; or Mrs. Potato Head with shoes and purse. That was the "control," because although she, too, was dressed and had similar color and texture, she lacked Barbie's sexualized characteristics, the researchers said.
The girls played with their dolls for a few minutes then answered questions about whether they could do any of 10 different jobs when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could. The careers were divided between those that are traditionally male-dominated and female-dominated.
Girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head thought they could have more career options than those who played with Barbie. And it didn't matter what Barbie was wearing, those who played with her pictured themselves in fewer careers than they could picture the boys doing: "Results support predictions from gender socialization and objectification theories," the study said.
Sherman said one toy isn't likely to alter a child's career aspirations, but toys can influence a child's ideas about his or her future. That means, she added, that parents should make certain that children have a wide variety of toys with which to play.
Meanwhile, Mattel's Barbie was getting attention for being featured in the annual Sport Illustrated swimsuit edition. In announcing her photo shoot, the Swim Daily staff at Sports Illustrated called her a "rookie-legend" but said it's "not buying her 'no plastic surgery' claim." There's a clever "photo shoot" where she is praised for such superior model qualities as an ability to hold a pose, not blink when photos are taken, and provide an endless, consistent smile. To hear the photographer who did the photo shoot talk about her, she's a real doll to work with.
Barbie tweeted about the shoot herself, with the hashtag "unapologetic."
In a brief story about Barbie, CNN noted that "when Barbie burst onto (the) scene in a black and white swimsuit in 1959, she was considered a rebel who embodied both "the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and the innocence of Debbie Reynolds."
Stories are also heralding the approach of an anti-Barbie, a plastic doll with similar coloring but more humanlike measurements. The Atlantic said that Lammily, as the doll is being called (most likely a nod to her graphic designer "dad," Nikolay Lamm), looks much more realistic than Barbie.
Lamm calls her "Normal Barbie" and has based her body shape "on averages of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that is more often used to track the American obesity epidemic. She is not affiliated with Mattel's Barbie," the article said.
He plans to fund her production through crowd-sourcing, but as of this writing has raised less than a third of what is being sought.
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