I now know what the J. Geils Band was talking about when they sang “My memory has just been sold, my angel is the centerfold,” as a toy I used to enjoy playing with as a child is now posing in a men’s magazine. In what I can only assume was a stroke of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ madness, Barbie is being featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. If there’s anything that’s going to generate publicity, it’s combining two things that are already popular and controversial.
This certainly seems to be a deliberate move on Mattel’s part; this questionable choice is part of Barbie’s #Unapologetic campaign. If you have to hashtag yourself with “unapologetic”, it means you must know you have things to be apologizing for, but you’re not going to. Barbie has a long history of being chastised for promoting unrealistic beauty standards, but instead of getting on board with the trend of body acceptance we’re trying to move toward as a society, she’s posing for a men’s magazine issue known for featuring models in as little clothing as can strictly be called a ‘swimsuit.’ #Unapologetic, indeed.
Frankly, I can’t see what about this appeals to the Sports Illustrated demographic, other than the free publicity for the magazine. I’m pretty sure the swimsuit issue isn’t where guys go in search of gift ideas for their daughters and nieces. Maybe I’ve missed something, and there’s a new adult male version of “bronies” that are now buying Barbie dolls, which is a fetish I don’t even want to begin to think about. Let me reiterate, a doll intended as a toy for young girls is posing for a sports magazine’s answer to Playboy. What is the world coming to? And more importantly, what’s next? I can think of a few things:
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, as modeled by the American Girl Dolls. They had to become American Women at some point, right? Plus, think of all the great tie-in doll lingerie Mattel could sell!
The Real Housewives of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe: In which we learn that all those good natured-seeming puppets from Mr. Roger’s imagination actually spent all of their time gossiping and throwing wine at each other when we weren’t looking.
Obviously these things are absurd, and clearly I think Barbie has taken it a step too far. Yes, she’s been a lightning rod for controversy, but so have the Disney Princesses, and you don’t see them posing for Maxim. To be featured in the SI swimsuit issue is basically saying “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m just going to try to offend even more people.” The funny thing is that the first part of this message is something more toys should be sharing with kids – people should unapologetically be who they are. But what if who they are is a children’s toy who poses for a sexed-up issue of a sports magazine? What obligation does a doll have to be a role model? What about her creators? I want a doll that encourages girls to be themselves, but not to let that self be someone creepy with little to no integrity. Barbie may have had her image issues in the past, but at least she’s always been an empowered woman who’s held down a wide variety of jobs while keeping Ken as her boytoy. In this new iteration, she’s accepted she’s not going to get the approval of a lot of women and is instead putting herself out there for male approval. “If people don’t like you, just dress sexy and pose for men” isn’t a message I’m comfortable with a toy company sending to children.
I don’t want to chastise Barbie for being #unapologetic or ignoring the haters, I just wish she’d done it in a different way. To say “This is who I’ve been for 50 years, I’m not going to change because of some criticism” would have been a statement someone could stand behind. To give critics, parents, and kids the metaphorical middle finger by posing for the swimsuit issue is just rude. The magazine hits newsstands next week, and I’ll be interested to see how this little marketing gamble pans out. I won’t let this publicity stunt tarnish my memories of playing with Barbie as a kid, but I certainly won’t be gifting Barbie dolls to my friends’ kids until she’s at least #sortofapologetic about this misstep.