In announcing that the 55-year-old plastic bombshell Barbie doll would grace the 50th-anniversary cover of Sports Illustrated’s mega-selling annual swimsuit issue, toymaker Mattel and the famous sports glossy took a decidedly values-oriented – and defiant – tone.
“From its earliest days, Swimsuit has delivered a message of empowerment, strength and beauty," said SI’s swimsuit editor M.J. Day in a statement Tuesday, “and we are delighted that Barbie is celebrating those core values in such a unique manner.”
Since the magazine’s bestselling issue will celebrate a 50-year milestone – a big event for any person or product – Barbie will celebrate these core values with 22 other models in a “Salute to the Legends” spread, featuring the likes of Christie Brinkley, Tyra Banks, and cover girl for the past two years, Kate Upton.
“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 spokeswoman told Ad Age this week.
Indeed, with its #unapologetic hashtag and full-fledged marketing campaign, the toymaker and sports magazine sent out a preemptive advertising shot across their longtime critics’ bow, recognizing at the outset how their buxom, long-legged products spark the powder keg of the country’s often ambivalent cultural and moral touchstones.
“I think the inclusion of Barbie in Sports Illustrated and the ‘unapologetic’ campaign is a provocative way to take a shot back at feminists who have critiqued Barbie's image and whether she damages the self-esteem of young girls,” says Kathleen Bogle, professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Feminists have criticized Barbie's proportions and what they would equate to in a real young woman to show how the Barbie image promotes an unhealthy body image.”
On the surface, the objectification and marketing of women’s bodies and the moral critiques from religious and feminist quarters are nothing new. Call it the “classic critique” of Barbie, a debate that has followed since her creation a half century ago.
Beneath the surface, however, many thinkers say there are more layers of competing cultural values involved. Mattel and Sports Illustrated anticipated the controversy and are now using it for marketing purposes.
“It’s fascinating to me, that on the one hand, this is just a publicity stunt for Mattel and for Sports Illustrated,” says Dustin Harp, a gender and media expert at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Really, right now in our culture, whether it’s a pop singer or product, marketing is all about the buzz, and any attention is good attention. And it’s very similar to a toddler: They just want attention, especially through behaving badly. It’s just about the buzz.”
The “unapologetic” campaign comes, too, as Barbie sales have plummeted, dropping 13 percent worldwide last quarter, a steady downward trend since the end of 2012. And since Mattel is paying for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, and since the constant criticism of Barbie could be behind her recent troubles, the deal is meant to raise eyebrows. Barbie is marketed to young girls; the swimsuit edition is marketed toward men and adolescent boys.
Both companies have not only exploited the female form for profit, other observers say, but they now have appropriated the values of self-esteem and equality, flipping them for their own defense.
“As with Barbie, every year the swimsuit edition sparks conversations about women and body image, and Sports Illustrated stands unapologetically behind this issue that women, in reality, love,” said another Mattel spokesperson to Adweek. “Unapologetic is a rally cry to embrace who you are and to never have to apologize for it.”
Barbie, the top-ranked brand among toys, which is worth $3 billion, according to Mattel, has proven culturally fungible with other kinds of values, however. The slender cultural icon has had 150 careers over the years, the company points out. She’s been an architect, doctor, and astronaut, as well as an Olympic gymnast. In the 1980s, she even became multicultural when Mattel launched African-American and Hispanic Barbies.
But her essence remained her otherworldly physical proportions, held up as an ideal of female beauty and celebrated incessantly in a media-defined age.
“On the other hand, what I’m also finding fascinating about this is that we’ve already had this Sports Illustrated ideal image of women,” says Dr. Harp, “and it’s an ideal image that is unattainable and unreal – and literally unreal, because they’re always photoshopped.”
“And now we’ve moved to just having an unreal woman,” Harp continues. “We have this plastic woman, who doesn’t even need to be photoshopped, because she’s the perfect model. So you almost wonder, is this the natural progression of our understanding of the ideal woman?”
Critics are pointing out the “truth in all jest” comments made by award-winning photographer Walter Iooss Jr., in one of those familiar behind-the-scenes videos of photo shoots with famous people.
“I’ve been waiting for this day with Barbie,” said Mr. Iooss in a clip on YouTube. “I’ve seen all the good ones go through the locations, but she’s hot. Barbie’s hot. She takes instructions almost silently: That’s why she’s the best model I’ve ever worked with.”
“She’s in some ways the perfect model,” winked Christopher Hercik, creative director for Sports Illustrated, on the same behind-the-scenes-with-Barbie spot. “She doesn’t blink, she doesn’t move, she takes directions.”
It’s the kind of classic objectification, though set in a jesting context, that Barbie and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue represents, critics say.
“It’s obviously tongue in cheek,” Harp says, “but it’s also very creepy, because he’s a 60-plus-year-old man talking about how hot Barbie is.”
“But there’s also some real cultural values embedded in what he’s saying,” she continues. “There’s this idea that women are supposed to be beautiful and silent and not talk and not cause problems.”
The jests contradict swimsuit editor Mr. Day’s insistence that the issue is about empowerment and strength, of course. But like all jests, they reveal simmering ambivalences and discomfort, especially when it comes to the power of bombshells, who by definition are abstraction meant to be gazed upon.
“Because Barbie is an icon, she oftentimes gets dragged into the cultural conversation," said Michelle Chidoni, a Mattel spokeswoman. "Barbie is often asked to apologize for what she looks like, but she is who she is.”