Coffee and the New York Times, possibly together, are two of my life’s greatest pleasures – even when I rant at the Times or at the stupidity of Western civilization that comes up with idiotic ideas like having Barbie modeling in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. This stroke of marketing genius must have caused some controversy I wasn’t aware of (need to open a Twitter account); what other reason could there be for Mattel to take out a full-page open letter ad in the NYT, defending their choice?
“[…] the Swimsuit issue is out, and there’s bound to be a conversation or two about the women in it. Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT. The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything. They should celebrate who they are and never have to apologize for it.”
Since when is Barbie the spokesperson of beautiful women who go on to launch careers at MIT? Could she even be? Is Barbie still relevant? And how so?
I feel no shame in admitting I played with Barbie until 14. Somehow, I could hold thoughts about boys and toys in the same space, while I morphed from an awkward teen into a woman. Barbie was a bit of a status symbol, a toy one had to have, rather than an ideal to emulate. At the time, there were no ethnic Barbies, at least not in Italy, so mine were all of the blonde, long-legged and perky breasts variety. As I never had blonde envy, I didn’t resent Barbie’s perfect features. But Barbie did come with perennial boyfriend, never to be husband, Ken and a less interesting younger sister, Skipper, who supported an idea of independence and self-realization. My Barbie family lived in a pink three-story house that, if I remember correctly, even had an elevator. They drove some Dune Buggy sort of car and had extensive wardrobes.
If Barbie exerted any influence over me at all, it was in the clothing department: having lots of outfits seemed to be fun. That I spent hours playing with my best friend, dressing and undressing the dolls, and inventing stories to do with their imaginary lives, is probably a testament to our creativity. I doubt Barbie taught me any valuable lessons on how to be a young woman. If anything, she represented an idealized version of an American youth I was not part of.
But what is Barbie trying to achieve by posing for Sports Illustrated? Is this recession proof doll trying to gain in hipness? Or is it just another marketing ploy? The latter is more likely because the former has failed miserably.
The swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated is unabashedly about sex. As a woman, I support any other female using her body as she pleases, be it being photographed naked, semi-naked or performing sex acts, provided none of it is done under duress. Using one’s physical attributes for financial gain is a personal choice I wouldn’t get on a soapbox to criticize.
But to proclaim, like Mattel does, “to ask ourselves whether isn’t it time to teach girls to celebrate who they are”, is a bit disingenuous. Barbie dolls are presumably aimed at females between the ages of six and twelve or thereabout, and Sports Illustrated is a magazine aimed at men gawking at beautiful women, scantily dressed.
Sure, models and barbies can go on “to break barriers, establish empires, build brands, branch out into careers as varied as authors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists” (in Mattel’s words) but should we really encourage young girls to take the route of Sports Illustrated? A route, by the way, probably achieved by less than one percent of Barbie toting girls.
In any case, childhood is the only time, for some briefer than others, when we are afforded some innocence. Something Mattel recognizes by having a fully grown-up doll devoid of nipples or an anatomically correct vagina. Playing with Barbie never included imaging a sex life with genital-free Ken. Why is Mattel pushing her there?
Images found in the public domain and courtesy of Sports Illustrated and Amazon