Meet AARP Barbie!

Yes, Barbie is 50 years old today, joining the ranks of women whose birthday candles generate enough heat to melt their mascara. She's the world's most famous cougar (now that commitment-phobic Ken has become the George Clooney of 11 1/2-inch dolls). She's had dozens of careers and makeovers, been analyzed, fetishized and Baywatch-ized.

Yet to women who were little girls half a century ago, Barbie is still just Barbie -- the doll that freed them from playing Mommy and instead let them play grown-up. Just the name Barbie is enough to transport them back to afternoons propping her up on the Dream House sofa and hoping that Santa would bring them the "Solo in the Spotlight" gown.

Here's what they might not have expected: Today's little girls still play Barbie. In fact, 70 percent of U.S. girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll. On average, three Barbies are sold worldwide every second.

Tammy dolls and Tressy dolls (she was the one whose hair "grew") were mere meteors in Barbie's cosmos, flaming out as she morphed into Astronaut Barbie. Remember the "Happy to Be Me" doll, with its thicker waist and wider hips? Didn't think so. The most spirited competitors to Barbie's dominance are the fairly recent Bratz dolls, whose troweled-on makeup and pole-dancing personas make Barbie seem as wholesome as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Joanne Floyd was a 6-year-old playing with paper dolls and Betsy Wetsys when the ponytailed teen model entered her life.

"What was appealing about Barbie was that she was glamorous, and the primary reason that girls were attracted to her was that they liked to dress up dolls in beautiful clothes," said Floyd, who grew up to be an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.

That sounds marvelously uncomplicated, given the controversy that's dogged Barbie, but Floyd is among those who believe that Barbie has been unfairly bullied.

"I personally don't buy into that idea that she portrayed the thin ideal and that had an enormous impact on children," Floyd said. "The fact of the matter is that kids are going to compare themselves to real people, to media images. When they're playing with a doll, I don't really think they're comparing their waist measurements. It's a doll. It's not real."

Far more influential, she said, are the TV images of human females over the course of Barbie's life, which have grown more problematic in recent years. It doesn't take too many clicks of the remote to hit a steady stream of gossipy girls, man-hungry singles, career gals with cleavage and desperate housewives.

"If you look back to when we were children, the families on TV -- 'Leave It to Beaver,' 'Ozzie and Harriet,' 'Father Knows Best' -- they all portray the nuclear family where fathers worked and mothers were in dresses, making food," Floyd said. "[The mothers] weren't doormats, but were the emotional center of the family, maintaining harmony between fathers and children."

Barbie entered that era with the notion that women had options of pursuing careers outside the home, but even that may be overestimating her influence compared with the messages and examples that girls absorb from their own mothers.

Novelist Jane Smiley made waves in 1999 when she wrote an essay in Ladies' Home Journal called "Barbie Chronicles," in which she proclaimed her belief in the goodness of Barbie, both for herself and for her two daughters. Smiley placed Barbie alongside traditional heroines such as Nancy Drew, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. "A girl has to have a Barbie doll in order to decide whether she herself wants to be a Barbie," Smiley wrote. "All this aids in a girl's making up her mind about who she is and what she wants. That Barbie is a genius."

Smiley also knew that it's inevitable that Barbie -- a toy -- will be outgrown.

That outcome, of course, has not kept the doll from being both revered and reviled for most of her 50 years. Columnist Anna Quindlen is a hater, once writing of her desire to drive "a silver lamé stake" through that imposing torso. Nor is Floyd willing to let Barbie completely off the hook.

"Playing with Barbie probably attunes little girls to dating scripts earlier than they might otherwise be attuned to them," Floyd said, while adding that she "never cared much about Ken." Her concern is an actual phenomenon known among toymakers as K.G.O.Y., or Kids Getting Older Younger. Barbie first was marketed to girls 9 to 12 years old; today, it's considered a toy for 3- to 6-year-olds.

Yet Floyd said research suggests that kids don't get into social comparisons with other kids and media figures until they're 8 or 9. "The concerns with body image begin after they've stopped playing with Barbies," she said. "I don't think Barbie is one of the main reasons we have eating disorders today. If it was, our generation would have had them, and we wouldn't have today's obesity rates.

"One of my indices for considering something harmful is: Do the majority of people who have played with, in this case, Barbie, come out all right? And they really do seem to have."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185