The Feminist Argument Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Barbie Is Trying to Make

Mattel makes a feminist argument about 'choice' already under fire in contemporary debate.

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Barbie – the plastic, 11.5 inch doll – is scheduled to be featured in an advertorial for the upcoming edition of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and, The New York Times reported Tuesday, news of her appearance – in a classic black-and-white striped one-piece – quickly created a stir online. 

This image provided by Sports Illustrated on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2014, shows the cover of the magazine's 50th anniversary annual swimsuit issue.
Sports Illustrated's decision to put Barbie on the cover of its annual swimsuit issue has stirred controversy online.

Feminists have long taken an issue with Barbie – and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – for perpetuating unrealistic expectations for women. But now Mattel, with its recently unveiled "unapologetic" campaign, is trying to co-opt a potentially problematic strain of feminist thought to defend her.

“As a legend herself, and under criticism about her body and how she looks, 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,” a Mattel spokesperson said, according to Ad Age.

“This program is about maintaining relevance and having a point of view on a societal conversation that has surrounded Barbie and women for years,” a Mattel spokesperson told Ad Week. 

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By couching their decision to put Barbie in the issue in the language of “owning” who you are and as part of a “societal conversation,” Mattel invoked a good old fashioned debate between first, second and third wave feminism. Among the fights feminist thinkers were having about the role of class, race and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues had in their movement as it evolved from its first to second era, a prominent flash point was body image and the decision of women to make themselves sexual objects. In the mid-1980s, a conflict arose between “pro sex” feminists and those leading the anti-pornography movement. In the wake of this and other debates arose what is often called third wave feminism, which among other things, embraced the lipstick- and high heel-wearing representation of self their bra-burning predecessors rejected.

With the "#unapologetic" campaign, Mattel's Twitter account last week resurfaced a quote by its co-founder Ruth Handler about Barbie being all about choice.

The insinuation seemed to be that – like the choice to “Lean In” or “opt out” to burn your bra or put on a bikini – Barbie modeling for Sports Illustrated is a personal “choice” among her choices to be an astronaut, a doctor and the 100-plus other occupations the doll has embarked on.

And she shouldn’t have to apologize for it, the company argues.

Barbie has found some new defenders with her #unapologetic campaign. Charlotte Alter argued last week for Time magazine that Barbie’s many careers should be celebrated and are often lost in the criticisms about her looks, which range from her physical dimensions, which  defy basic anatomy, to how her clothing proportions represent a skinny-obsessed fashion industry.

However, her defense came before it was announced that Barbie put that 55-year-old swimsuit back on for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, which already has a troublesome relationship with women, according to some critics.

“This one issue has been problematic with body image for women and now that you add Barbie in to the mix it becomes more complex,” says Emerald Christopher, a professorial lecturer on Women and Gender Studies at Georgetown University.

For one, Barbie has chosen to model in magazine marketed not to girls or women, but adult males. It is not just how her presence shapes her young females fans’ perceptions of themselves, but also how it shapes the perceptions of Sports Illustrated’s male audience. 

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Perhaps in an attempt to ward of the haters, Mattel and Sports Illustrated’s joint campaign is also emphasizing Barbie’s age and highlighting the fact that she is posing alongside other “legends” aka veteran, older models, like Heidi  Klum and Christie Brinkley.

But by contextualizing the Sports Illustrated appearance in a third wave-esque celebration of “choice” in order to justify a throwback to Barbie's pre-second wave conception, Mattel has shown how problematic feminists are now finding that celebration.

“Not everyone has that choice and we also need to start looking at the illusion of choice,” Christopher says. “There are still systematic barriers at work.”

She points out that, sure, Barbie has the choice to be a model, but that choice is also entrenched with her being tall, skinny and blond. 

“I would argue that this is just another reiteration of not just having success but also looking good in the process, which is not realistic,” she says.

Mattel also said that the cover is a celebration of the bathing suit modeling career that launched Barbie into what is now a $3 billion empire. When Barbie first donned that bathing suit, she probably didn’t know the many other careers she would get to try. Nor could she have anticipated the how the feminist movement would have evolve, as “The Feminine Mystique,” which sparked its second wave, was still four years away from being published. But by bringing back her 1959 look for a contemporary magazine still struggling with its representation of women, Mattel highlighted how the debate is still far from being settled.