Barbie has made headlines that lately; as we continue to push toy companies towards a doll that includes more diverse body types, ethnicities, careers, and lifestyles, some groundbreaking artists have reworked and re-appropriated the toy to challenge expectations and sexist assumptions. My personal favorite of these artists, Margaux Lange, shared a recent Barbie tidbit with her social media network this morning: the doll is going to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
A Mattel spokesperson explains of the new campaign, “Barbie is a legend in her own right, with more than 150 careers and a brand valued at $3 billion […] She is in great company with the other legends such as Heidi Klum and Christie Brinkley, to name a few.” Mattel goes on to reason that like these women, Barbie has “come under criticism about her body and how she looks,” explaining that this is Barbie’s chance to “celebrate” and to “be unapologetic.” The Swimsuit Editor M. J. Day agrees that the use of the doll is a positive step for women: "From its earliest days, Swimsuit has delivered a message of empowerment, strength and beauty.” Alright, then.
It’s a bit of a stretch for me to see 1959 swimsuit Barbie as a representation of empowered female sensuality. Barbie is purchasable, eternally youthful, and lacks nipples despite her perfectly perky bosom; what’s more, 1950s-1960s Barbie’s activities were limited to cleaning her house and reading diet books. Alternately, Heidi Klum, Christie Brinkley, and other live, human women of all shapes and ethnicities have lived in a real woman’s body, aged, developed, matured. A woman—or human being— should never have to “apologize” for her body, but Mattel’s choice to use the tagline #UNAPOLOGETIC for a plastic doll—one that feminists have repeatedly evidenced as promoting unrealistic body standards to young women— seems less empowering than aggressive.
The Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated has come under a similar sort of attack in the last years, accused of objectifying the female body in order to sell a product. The choice to use a literal object as their model in no way promotes the idea that women can be powerful, confident, active participants in the world. The photographer's jokes, "She takes instruction almost silently; that's why she's the best model I've ever worked with" and "fortunately, I don't have to deal with any personality problems" says it all.
As suggested by Mommyish’s Eve Vawter, Barbie is also a children’s toy, and placing her within an overtly sexualized— and arguably objectifying— context sends confusing signals to growing girls. I’m not buying Sports Illustrated or Mattel’s line about empowerment, but what do you think? Let us know in the comments!