Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sports Illustrated swimsuit Barbie inappropriate, sad

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TRAIL, BC -- Advertisers have long used women's bodies to make a buck, and every so often a controversial advertising campaign, like the marketing of the Barbie doll as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit supermodel, creates a stir in the marketplace.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary issue of the magazine's swimsuit edition, Mattel released a limited edition SI Swimsuit Barbie. Barbie sports a contemporary version of the doll's original 1959 black and white swimsuit, accessorized with black high-heeled sandals, jewelry and sunglasses.

The magazine includes a four page-advertising feature of the doll, and features Barbie as an SI Swimsuit supermodel on 1,000 cover wraps with the headline "the doll that started it all."

This latest rebranding of Barbie has reignited the debate about the appropriateness of the doll. Some say the doll's proportions give girls an unrealistic idea of beauty that is harmful to their self-esteem, and as evidence, they point to the number of mutilated Barbie dolls on tables at garage sales. Others argue Barbie represents choices for women. Mattel describes Barbie -- who apparently has had about 150 careers, including a run at the U.S. presidency -- as "unapologetic" about her career as a SI Swimsuit supermodel.

I am neither a Barbie doll detractor nor apologist. Like most girls growing up in the 1960s, I had a Barbie. The only thing I ever learned from Barbie was how to mix and match outfits and accessorize them. I never confused Barbie with reality. I was quite sure she came from an impossibly rich family, while everyone I knew worked hard for a living. No one I knew even remotely resembled her physically, let alone possessed her extensive and glamorous wardrobe. Nor did Barbie have a negative effect on my self-image. I never felt inadequate because I had no hope of looking like her, and once I outgrew her I never gave her a second thought. But then, the technology to bombard my impressionable young psyche with sexual images and messages did not exist. I grew up in the age of black and white television, watching wholesome shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. We had party line telephones, not smartphones. There was no social media, where marketing gurus have Barbie tweeting her "#unapologetic" message it is OK to be a model and wear a bikini.

Of course it is OK; girls can and do model swimsuits -- for catalogues or stores that sell kids' clothes. They should not be posing in swimsuits for a sexy magazine for men, and those women who are old enough to do so are not playing with Barbie dolls, following her blog, or tuning into her tweets.

The marketing of this Barbie, and not the look of the doll itself, bothers me. The marketing encourages and reinforces the idea that women are sex symbols. Playing to both the imagination of children and adults, the campaign links a little girl's doll to a magazine for middle-aged men devoted to provocative photos of scantily clad women.

Company executives want us to think Barbie's association with successful SI swimsuit alumni celebrates women's accomplishments as entrepreneurs, but in proclaiming Barbie as "the doll that started it all" the messaging says something quite different; women are dolls, and in this case, dolls are playthings for men. It is a poor, if not disturbing, message for everyone.

The partnership of Barbie and SI Swimsuit has nothing to do with empowering choices for girls. It is, unapologetically, about making a profit. It is unprincipled and sad.


Louise McEwan is a religion writer with degrees in English and theology.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 A9

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