In a psychology lab at Oregon State University, 37 girls ages 4 to 7 have demonstrated what feminists have long warned: that playing with Barbie dolls drives home cultural stereotypes about a woman’s place and suppresses a little girl’s career ambitions. But here’s an unexpected, though preliminary, finding: Playing with Mrs. Potato Head, by contrast, appears to have the effect of attending a “Lean In” circle on little girls. After spending just five minutes with Jane Potato-Head, girls believed they could grow up to do pretty much anything a boy could do.
This small but telling experiment, published in the journal Sex Roles, probably will do little to stem sales of Barbie dolls, which at last count flew off store shelves the world over at a rate of two per second. But among equal-opportunity-conscious parents, it might spur a sales bump for Mrs. Potato Head, who, compared with Barbie, has a shape decidedly closer to that of most American women.
And don’t be fooled by those career girl Barbies dressed up as doctors, astronauts, politicians, computer engineers and ocean explorers. The researchers said that whether girls played with “Doctor Barbie” or “Fashion Barbie,” they were likely to judge themselves capable of plying, on average, 1.5 fewer occupations than a boy could. “Although the marketing slogan suggests that Barbie can ‘Be Anything,’ girls playing with Barbie appear to believe that there are more careers for boys than for themselves,” wrote authors and psychology professors Aurora M. Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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