Barbie, Sports Illustrated, & Incoherent Rage

I now interrupt your regularly scheduled posts to bring you some feminist rage. Regular post will still go up on Monday.

Being a person who believes that women are complex and intelligent human beings deserving of respect (read: a feminist) sometimes means having your entire day ruined by a headline. Today is one of those days for me, and the headline was this: Barbie’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Causes a Stir Online.

Yes, you read that correctly. Barbie–the iconic plastic doll with the absurd bodily proportions–is going to be a centerfold for Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit edition. It’s part of Mattel’s #Unapologetic re-branding campaign, designed to reverse Barbie’s slipping sales and bring her back into the spotlight as a pop culture icon. They reportedly paid Sports Illustrated for the privilege.

There are so many things wrong with this campaign that I don’t even know where to begin, but we’re going to work through this together so that I can blow off some steam. And by ‘steam’ I mean ‘rage.’ 

First of all, I think it’s important to say that I don’t hate Barbie. Are her proportions unrealistic? Yes, absolutely. Does she reinforce harmful beauty ideals? You betcha. Is she overly sexualized? I think so–her feet are literally frozen in high-heel wearing position. Basically, no argument from me on the encouraging-body-issues front. But with 150 careers over the decades, she also represents a woman with varied interests and impressive accomplishments. Many of the jobs Barbie has held are jobs typically reserved for men, including things like astronaut, NASCAR driver, member of every branch of the military, and President of the United States. I’m not saying that makes up for the body image thing, but it is a positive aspect of Barbie that ought to be remembered. When I was 5 years old, playing with my Barbies, I didn’t think of her as a sex symbol. I was more interested in telling stories about her life, aided by the insane volume of Barbie-sized career options available.

Which brings me to the first major problem with this recent turn of events.

1. Barbie is Not a Sex Symbol

At least, she’s not suppose to be. Despite her proportions, Barbie is still a toy, marketed for children. Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit edition, on the other hand, is about sex symbols. Anybody who says otherwise is trying to be funny. It’s so obvious that SI’s swimsuit edition is about showing off sexy ladies that sometimes they don’t even bother to include the swimsuits. This is a magazine specifically dedicated to displaying sexually tantalizing pictures of naked women for their almost exclusively adult male audience, and a children’s toy is going to star in it.

Think about that for a second.

child’s toy is going to be explicitly displayed as a sex object. Whether or not you think Barbie is overly sexualized in and of herself is irrelevant; this move unambiguously labels her as sexy. And if you think kids aren’t going to notice when the toy they play with hits newsstands next to naked models, then you are severely underestimating the observational skills of children. More than a few of them are going to be confused when their parents refuse to buy them the magazine with Barbie on the cover. It’d be funny if it weren’t so gross.

2. Barbie Does Not Have Body Issues

In case you didn’t actually read the article I linked above, here’s the most salient quote from it:

“As a legend herself, and under constant criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in” the issue “gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic,” Mattel said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mattel is claiming that Barbie’s appearance in the SI swimsuit edition is empowering for her–that it is a statement of pride in herself and her body. This echoes the sentiments that many women express about their appearances in magazines like SI and Playboy, and it’s a perfectly fine sentiment. If an adult woman wants to strip down and do sexy poses and show off her body, then that is her prerogative and she should do it until the cows come home. There is nothing bad about thinking your own body is sexy and wanting to show it off.

But here’s the thing: Barbie isn’t a person.

Yes, Mattel has gone to great lengths to create a history and personal life for her, but at the end of the day, she is a lump of molded plastic, her personality is a marketing campaign and her opinions are selling points. She doesn’t have a brain or a heart or thoughts or emotions–just perfectly sculpted breasts. Barbie doesn’t have a body image problem; she is a body image problem. Claiming that she represents the experiences of the countless intelligent and accomplished women who have also appeared in SI and went on to do amazing things is absurd and insulting.

And while we’re talking about the actual woman models….

3. It’s Objectifying

There are lots of people who will argue against this point, but in this case there is no argument to be made. In this issue of SI, real humans are going to be explicitly compared to a literal object. Real women. Equated with. A doll. That is the definition of objectification. Putting Barbie in this magazine only makes sense if you consider her on the same level as the real, live human beings who will share the pages with her. Barbie isn’t real and, in the eyes of SI, neither are those models.

4. #Unapologetic is Already a Thing

This is a slight digression, but just as important as all of the above. The campaign Mattel is using for this re-branding, #Unapologetic, is already in use. It was popularized by Rihanna, the pop/R&B singer, who has faced a lot of criticism for her gender, her body, her race, her personal life, and how she chooses to express herself. She used it as an album title in 2012, and has since used the hashtag as a form of resistance against criticism, to express pride in herself and who she is. You know. Like Mattel is pretending Barbie is doing.

Why is this problematic? Let me count the ways.

Rihanna is a real person. Her body is not sculpted plastic, and her opinions are not a marketing strategy. Everything said about her comes back to a complex human being, who must find a way to handle the psychological fallout of public criticism. Rihanna gets a lot of crap thrown at her, and she chooses to respond with shamelessness and pride. This is where #Unapologetic comes from.

And then along comes Mattel, appropriating the concept and the hashtag to justify putting a skinny white children’s doll in a glorified porno magazine. They even had the gall to suggest that the two campaigns had something in common:

“While the social campaigns are unrelated,” said a spokeswoman for Mattel, Michelle Chidoni, “they both embody similar messages.”

Um, no. No, they really don’t.

Objectively yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“It’s like the darkness is the light.” -Rihanna’s Disturbia

P.S. The really frustrating thing about this? Mattel has actually done some pretty great branding work in the past to remove the sex object aspect of Barbie’s history. For example, this web series, which is hysterical and also weirdly meta. Disappointed to see them do something so unambiguously awful.

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