A new low for Barbie (and American media)
The level of sexism and objectification of women prevalent throughout American media may have reached a new low this week. That’s because Mattel has teamed up with Sports Illustrated to create an ad-wrap featuring the toy company’s iconic Barbie doll to grace the cover of the magazine’s always-popular swimsuit edition, which hit newsstands earlier this week.
This annual publication—featuring scantily clad, thin-waisted models with ample busts and suggestive expressions—has always been controversial for its portrayal of women. (Has anyone featured in this magazine ever actually been depicted swimming?)
But as Eve Vawter points out, by including Barbie in this already borderline sexist endeavor, these companies are subjecting children (if indirectly) to the same impossible body-image standards that many grown women (and men) feel forced to live up to. In doing so, these kids are being set up for a lifetime of self-esteem issues stemming from a desire to attain an impossible standard of beauty.
Adding insult to injury, Mattel has advertised the promotion—meant to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Barbie along with the 50th anniversary of the SI swimsuit issue—with billboards featuring the doll in a one-piece swimsuit and the Twitter hash-tag #unapologetic.
A Mattel spokeswoman has defended this decision, claiming the word “unapologetic” is meant to be a message of empowerment, and to celebrate Barbie as a model of a successful woman.
“Barbie is a legend in her own right, with more than 150 careers and a brand valued at $3 billion…posing in ‘Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’ gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done, and be unapologetic,” the spokeswoman said.
Mattel has also reinforced that the magazine is not intended to be viewed by children.
But not everyone shares this rose-tinted perspective. Some say the promotion is nothing more than a publicity stunt to help boost Mattel’s dipping sales figures. Others go so far as to say the companies are deliberately sexualizing a child’s toy. And many agree that the word “unapologetic” refers to both companies’ willful ignorance of the damage they are doing to the psyches of so many impressionable readers, young and old.
My two cents
I think this whole idea was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, to bring a larger-than-life cultural icon into even greater cultural relevancy by including her in a well-known publication, as if she were a real person. This reminds me a lot of when Playboy included Marge Simpson as a featured pinup model in a 2009 issue. So I don’t believe the magazine, or the inclusion of Barbie, or even the hash-tag was meant to be damaging to children, or anyone else. Provocative? Yes. Damaging? No.
But here’s the hitch. I think despite the companies’ intentions, the inclusion of a children’s doll in a magazine filled with lewd photographs of sexually submissive women and targeted to grown men does nothing to advance the discussion of body image issues in America. If anything, it sets the entire fashion and beauty industry back, just as it has begun to slowly change for the better, with companies like Dove featuring “real women” in its advertisements. It perpetuates the stereotype of unnaturally tall and skinny (and mostly Caucasian) women as representing the standard of beauty recognized by most major brands and publications. And it promotes an attitude of indifference toward these problems, suggesting that Barbie should not apologize for being who she is (even though she isn’t real!), that she should ignore the vast majority of us who can never look like her and who might resent her for her unattainable perfection.
Children don’t have to see or understand these images to be damaged by them. The problems that they will inherit (unless more drastic change is demanded by consumers) are endemic in our media-driven culture where sex continues to sell. As long as it does, we will continue to see generations of children with low self-esteem, eating disorders and other body-image issues. Perhaps Barbie doesn’t need to be apologetic, or to even be held accountable for this. But someone does.
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