SI’s Swimsuit Barbie reinforces idea that women are playthings for men
Advertisers have long used women’s bodies to make a buck, and every so often a controversial advertising campaign, like the marketing of the Barbie doll as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit supermodel, creates a stir in the marketplace.
Coinciding with the 50th-anniversary issue of the magazine’s swimsuit edition, Mattel released a limited edition SI Swimsuit Barbie. Barbie sports a contemporary version of the doll’s original 1959 black and white swimsuit, fashionably accessorized with strappy black high-heeled sandals, jewelry and sunglasses.
The magazine includes a four-page advertising feature of the doll and features Barbie as an SI swimsuit supermodel on 1,000 cover wraps with the headline “the doll that started it all.”
This latest rebranding of Barbie has reignited the debate about the appropriateness of the doll. Some say the doll’s proportions give girls an unrealistic idea of beauty that is harmful to their self-esteem and, as evidence, they point to the number of mutilated Barbie dolls on tables at garage sales. Others argue that Barbie represents choices for women. Mattel describes Barbie, who apparently has had about 150 careers including a run at the presidency of the United States, as “unapologetic” about her career as a SI Swimsuit supermodel.
I am neither a Barbie-doll detractor nor apologist. Like most girls growing up in the 1960s, I had a Barbie. The only thing I ever learned from Barbie was how to mix and match outfits and accessorize them. I never confused Barbie with reality. I was quite sure she came from an impossibly rich family while everyone I knew worked hard for a living. No one I knew even remotely resembled her physically, let alone possessed her extensive and glamorous wardrobe. Nor did Barbie have a negative effect on my self-image. I never felt inadequate because I had no hope of looking like her. And once I outgrew her I never gave Barbie a second thought. She was not a major factor in my emotional development.
But then, the technology to bombard my impressionable young psyche with sexual images and messages did not exist. I grew up in the age of black and white television, watching wholesome shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. We had party-line telephones not smartphones. There was no such thing as social media where today’s marketing gurus have Barbie blogging and tweeting her “#unapologetic” message that it is OK to be a model and wear a bikini.
Of course it is OK; girls can and do model swimsuits — for catalogues like Sears and other department stores that sell kids clothes. They should not be posing in swimsuits for a sexy issue of a magazine for men, and those women who are old enough to do so are not playing with Barbie dolls, following her blog or tuning into her tweets. It makes me wonder who the target audience for this Barbie is.
The marketing of this Barbie, and not the look of the doll itself, bothers me. The marketing encourages and reinforces the idea that women are sex symbols. Playing to both the imagination of children and adults, the marketing campaign links a little girl’s doll to a magazine for middle-aged men devoted to provocative photos of scantily clad women.
Company executives want us to think that Barbie’s association with successful SI swimsuit alumni celebrates women’s accomplishments as entrepreneurs. But in proclaiming Barbie as “the doll that started it all,” the messaging says something quite different — women are dolls, and in this case, dolls are playthings for men. It is a poor, if not disturbing, message for everyone.
The partnership of Barbie and SI Swimsuit edition has nothing to do with empowering choices for girls no matter how the executives spin it. It is, unapologetically, about making a profit for companies. And while there are those who think the campaign is clever and witty, in my view, it is unprincipled and sad.