There’s a very disturbing story circulating today about the evil power of Barbie dolls.

Some sample headlines:

“Dolled up or working, Barbie crushes girls’ career dreams, study says” – The Los Angeles Times
“Playing with Barbie limits career choices for girls, study says” – The Toronto Sun
“Barbie might be a dream killer, new study suggests” – UPI
“Barbie: A toy with a lasting influence” – The Register Guard
“Barbie crushes girls’ career aspirations” – Daily Life

“Wow!” you’re thinking. “They’ve finally done it. They’ve proven what Barbie detractors have been saying for years – that Barbie Dolls have a direct and measurable impact on little girls’ psychological development.

“And, of course, the researchers did some sort of long-term controlled longitudinal study in order to measure such an impact, right?”

You’d be forgiven for jumping to this seemingly logical conclusion. But you would be wrong.

The study?

According to the press release from Oregon State University:

    “[37] Girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn’t have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.

    After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
    Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.

    There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.”

To recap: They handed some little girls either Barbie Dolls or Mrs. Potato Heads, then after a few minutes, quizzed them about potential careers, and drew from that the conclusion that it’s the Barbie Dolls that impacted their responses.

Study author, Aurora Sherman, an associate professor at Oregon State’s department of psychology, published her findings in the journal Sex Roles. She says, “Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world. 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.”

Wow, that’s a lot of conclusion to draw from giving 37 girls five minutes of Barbie playtime.

These little girls have entire lives of experience from which to draw, full of all kinds of influences. You can’t make that suggestion based on a few minutes of play. It’s a ludicrous suggestion. Also, I wonder why Mrs. Potato Head led them to believe they had broader horizons. Was one of the career options “Giant potato shaped head with removable features?”

Perhaps it would have been a more telling study had the girls chosen their own toys and if the outcome had been that those who chose Barbies had more limited views of their future options. Perhaps not.

This is one of the worst cases of the media running with a sensational headline I have ever seen.

I’m not saying Barbie doesn’t have a measurable, negative impact on young girls. I have no idea whether she does or not. But I am saying that this study isn’t the one that proves it.

There have been other studies that suggest no impact. Those dealing with body image issues – by far the most common Barbie-related subject – include one by John Worobey at Rutgers, who found that, among 254 undergraduates surveyed, “Neither age of acquisition or number of Barbies owned had a significant impact on self-evaluations of appearance or on dieting behavior. The strongest predictor of dieting behavior was the women’s recollection of how much physical appearance was valued by her family of origin members.”


I suspect little girls who play with Barbies will do just fine career-wise as long as the other influences in their lives lead in the right direction. I can’t prove it, of course. Oh, wait maybe I can. I should just ask a few random women if they played with Barbies as children and if they’re happy with their careers. If the majority answer in the affirmative, I’ve got my study.

Just call me a scientist.