Barbie on her swimsuit cover: Don't dismiss 'pretty' girls

Barbie poses on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Barbie poses on the cover of Sports Illustrated.Today
By Meghan Holohan

One thing’s certain about Barbie. That girl can cause a scene. After making a splash on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Barbie penned an op-ed to quell her critics and explain why she felt honored to be a cover girl.

Barbie (OK, Mattel) frames her decision as one that is good for all girls:

“Today, truly anything is possible for a girl. Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes. It’s easy to say the culprit is the color pink or the existence of makeup. That’s easy, and predictable. Neither prevents girls from excelling in their own fashion. Let her grow up not judged by how she dresses, even if it’s in heels; not dismissed for how she looks, even if she’s pretty. Pink isn’t the problem.”

The essay concludes that girls and women should feel free to “launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT.” In essence, it implies, feminism should mean it’s OK for her to pose on an iconic cover without criticism.

“[Mattel is] trying to out feminist the feminists,” says Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College.

And Wade says the message is “Quit picking on [me], you feminist.”

She says the "Barbie" writer creates a stereotype of a feminist to debate — a reactionary and angry woman, a trope of a feminist.

“She loses all legitimacy when she contributes to the wider media narrative of feminists being unlikable,” Wade says. “In particular, the fact that this article set up this straw feminist is really gross.” 

The reasons people object to Barbie gracing the cover of the swimsuit issue are as complex as feminism itself. The op-ed implies that women do not like Barbie because they dislike pretty, feminine women. But critics of the swimsuit cover — and the doll itself — cite many other reasons, including what the cover symbolizes and expectations set by a child’s toy.  

“Sports Illustrated is all about idealized beauty and fantasy and so is Barbie,” says Robyn Sliverman, a body image expert. “Are we saying Barbie should be sexualized?”

“It has a distinctive ick factor.”

Shira Tarrant agrees and says that the Barbie cover not only creates a problem for girls and women, but also for men because it “infantilizes” them while making it easier to objectify women.

“It blends an object, a doll, with real women,” says Tarrant, an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at University of California, Long Beach.

Barbie writing her own op-ed deepens the concern, Tarrant says. “She’s a doll. She doesn’t talk. That further blends the object and person.”   

And for girls looking for role models, Barbie’s dimensions are even less attainable than those of the women normally found in the swimsuit edition.

“We really value these totally unusual body types,” Wade says.

When girls only play with Barbie, Silverman says, they think: “This is what beautiful looks like … and if you don’t adhere to that, you are perhaps not beautiful.”

Silverman, who wrote the book “Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive,” thinks most girls play with enough other toys and dolls to counter that narrow idea of what’s attractive.

And Barbie does possess some feminist qualities, says Wade. In addition to her famous careers, she is one of the only dolls that owns her own house, not a family home, emphasizing the idea that women can do “anything,” as the op-ed suggests.

But Wade says the editorial fell short.

“One of the feminist concerns is with objectification,” Tarrant says. “That’s not an anti-sex or anti-pretty argument. It’s asking people to examine really critically how limited the view of beauty is.”

Then the piece confuses the issue by emphasizing Barbie as a career woman. If Mattel truly hoped to focus on Barbie’s “more than 150 careers,” the company could have placed her on the cover of a different magazine, alongside real women who are also working as CEOs, astronauts, models, or doctors, says Silverman.

It’s likely that Mattel realizes that it can create attention by placing Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated and launching its “#unapologetic” campaign. Perhaps all the company wanted to do was make Barbie relevant again.

She’s certainly been talked about more in the past few days than in the months previous.

“It’s interesting. Barbie has been trying to fight back against the feminist movement,” says Wade. “And now they’re just like … ‘we’re going [with it].’”