Barbie: Half a Century Older but None the Wiser

Published: March 6, 2014

While Chapel Hill was trying to do its best Frozen impression, Sports Illustrated (SI) announced that the popular doll Barbie would be the cover girl for its annual swimsuit edition issue. Under the hashtag “#unapologetic”, Barbie strikes a defiant pose in a black and white one piece– a 1959 throwback to the toymaker’s roots. Social media platforms flared up in controversy. For years the SI swimsuit edition has objectified women. Having an objectifying plastic doll on the cover, who defies nature with her unrealistic proportions, is no improvement.

A Mattel spokesperson commented on the matter, “This is not a program targeted towards girls. As a brand that is always a part of the cultural conversation, Barbie, for the first time, has an active voice in the debate with her #unapologetic stance. The goal of the campaign is to empower fans to engage and celebrate all that makes them ‘who they are’”.

Let’s be clear that Mattel is NOT at all interested in empowering its target audience. This was purely a publicity stunt—a thinly veiled attempt to reinvigorate slumping Barbie sales which have been down 22% since last year. It would be foolish to assume that the PR team at Mattel did not know this move would create a backlash; this was a calculated move to spark conversation on a culturally fading product. With the number of articles published about this in the past month, I would say that Mattel knew that any publicity was good publicity.

For the sake of argument, assume that Mattel’s campaign of woman empowerment was valid and not just a cry for attention: Barbie is a poor choice of a figurehead for a movement that promotes enablement with an unapologetic flare. Barbie is the embodiment of superficiality. From her gravity-defying measurements, to her fanciful Dream House, Barbie represents a romanticized lifestyle that is advertised as “desirable”, but is wholly unattainable. While Mattel has made efforts to broaden Barbie’s appeal by adding both ethnically diverse and career oriented product lines, the prototypic Barbie image is emblazoned on our minds. The irony here is choosing a figurehead, whose fame is based solely on exterior appearances, to preach empowerment from within. Mattel has no incentive to change their image. With an exclusive Target brand Barbie model to be released simultaneously with the SI cover, it seems that this stunt is nothing more than an ostentatious financial revitalization by Mattel.

Hopefully someday Barbie’s appeal will lessen for parents and SI will stick to sports. And maybe someday SI and Mattel will both realize that their objectifying products only maintain social injustices and gender inequalities.

photo credit: markchadwickart via Creative Commons