Barbie in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition: Is She the Ultimate Sex Object?

"I am a doll. And yet, I’ve always caused a bit of a stir, starting with my debut as a teenage fashion model in a swimsuit in 1959." - Barbara Millicent Roberts

"I am a doll. And yet, I’ve always caused a bit of a stir, starting with my debut as a teenage fashion model in a swimsuit in 1959." - Barbara Millicent Roberts

You may have heard or seen Barbie's latest gig: modeling in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition. As part of this #Unapologetic campaign, the doll "authored" a post explaining why she decided to "join the legendary swimsuit models."

The word “model,” like the word “Barbie®,” is often dismissed as a poseable plaything with nothing to say. And yet, those featured are women who have broken barriers, established empires, built brands, branched out into careers as varied as authors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They are all great examples of confident and competent women.

That strikes me as true, but it ignores an important point: those confident and competent women have also chosen to blatantly portray themselves as sexual objects when they suggestively pose in the nude or near-nude. That's their prerogative, but it doesn't come without consequences for themselves and society. The Barbie brand may also have to face the consequences of spending undisclosed amounts of money to associate a child's toy with a brand that "is one step away from Playboy magazine [and] potentially sending the wrong message to girls." 

Mattel sounds like it is trying to send a message of female empowerment, but making the doll pose as a sexual object sends the opposite message. Studies show that the sexual objectification of women harms both men and women personally, politically, and professionally. Dr. Caroline Heldman explains why in this TED Talk:

I've said before that I love Barbie. I still do. To me, Barbie has always embodied the traits that I projected upon her when I played with her as a child. These were traits that I saw in my real-life heroines, like strength, kindness, femininity, intelligence, and imagination.  They are probably traits shared by many real-life models who choose to be objectified and self-objectify.  But I don't see these traits or any other traits I admire reflected in the act of objectification. So no matter how much I love Barbie, I can't help but agree with Digiday's assessment of the move:

For all the “empowered women” hype, the significant professional accomplishments of the actual human women in the legends swimsuit issue will effectually be reduced to a footnote. It is their bodies and their ability to still look hot in a bikini that will be showcased. With Barbie sales slipping significantly, there is a sad irony that Mattel believes her greatest enduring accomplishment is her ability to unapologetically look hot in a swimsuit. ...

Though Mattel asserts that this campaign is not directed at young girls and is, instead, targeted at society at large, Barbie is still a toy for little girls. And don’t we give toys to children to allow them to practice roles they might take on in adulthood?

A girl stumbling upon her dad’s copy of a Barbie adorned Swimsuit issues displaying photos of the doll in her hand next to dozens and dozens of hyper-sexualized images of scantily clad women (who look quite a bit like her Barbie) might be a bit confused, especially if told those images represent “empowered and accomplished” women. Wardy urges smart parents to flip the script.

“We can be as creative as the marketers and create reframes and deeper perspective to teach our girls and boys how to think critically about the positives and negatives of why images like this were created,” she said.

It could be that the Barbie/SI campaign is the right message, but the wrong platform. Women being #unapologetic about being beautiful and accomplished is one thing. But beautiful and accomplished and still hyper-sexualized objects is something else entirely.

photo credit: English Girl at Home via photopin cc