Barbie is one of the enduring figures of American pop culture, and earlier this month, design VP Kim Culmone defended the doll against a common criticism: that her impossible figure created a standard that girls tried and failed to measure up to. "Barbie's body was never designed to be realistic," said Culmone. Now, this stylized form will be showing up in one of our other great fixtures: the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. As The New York Times reports, the 50th anniversary issue will feature Barbie in a redesigned version of her original 1959 swimsuit. As a media tie-in effort, the crossover goes deep. The doll will get a four-page advertorial spread shot by longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss, Jr., and a limited-edition "Sports Illustrated Barbie" will be sold separately.
The pairing is perfect almost to the point of parody: if you wanted to find the two long-standing cultural touchstones most likely to push buttons about body image and the presentation of women, you'd be hard-pressed to do better. Mattel, at least, certainly knows it. Barbie's latest ad campaign is summed up as "#unapologetic," a hashtag Mattel probably chose because "#sorrynotsorry" was already taken. It's usually paired with pictures of sparkly shoes and references to "legendary women," and Mattel frames the Sports Illustrated spread as an explicit rebuttal to criticism of both the doll and the magazine.
"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," a spokesperson tells Ad Age. "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," reads a statement to Adweek. It's a judo attack on feminist critique: complaining that Barbie or Sports Illustrated promote unrealistic expectations of women becomes body-policing a 55-year-old plastic doll.
But as Nicole Rodgers of Role/Reboot, which covers culture and gender roles, points out, there's a particularly awkward subtext to this team-up. Unrealistically photoshopped magazine covers have been alternately criticized and mocked over the past few years, and Barbie ups the ante: she's an object specifically built from the ground up to be impossibly beautiful, and now she's sharing space with real-life women. "In this context, the choice of this doll/human pairing seems to be moving in entirely the wrong direction," she tells The Verge. "It is quite literally a new level of female objectification to pair real women with inanimate objects, as equivalents, at least in terms of how readers are expected to appreciate and value their beauty."
"My first thought is that this is pure outrage bait."
People have been debating whether Barbie is a good role model for years, and this spread won't change minds on either side of the issue. "My first thought is that this is pure outrage bait," says Lisa Wade, Occidental College professor and founder of the blog Sociological Images. And while Mattel is asking the question of whether pinups and fashion spreads are empowering, it's eliding the question of why they're such a ubiquitous way to celebrate female success. The problem isn't necessarily that Barbie (who has roots in fashion dolls sold to adults) is posing in the Swimsuit Issue, or even that the Swimsuit Issue exists. It's that things like the Swimsuit Issue are where "legendary women" tend to end up. During the rest of the year, women are noticeably absent from Sports Illustrated covers, and while male athletes are usually shot in ways that demonstrate athletic prowess, women who do appear tend to have more passive poses and are less likely to be athletes.
In an interview (yes, an in-character interview) with People magazine, Barbie praised other Swimsuit Issue models, women who "exemplify that you can be both capable and captivating." Being captivating in a photo shoot — which involves extensive bodily maintenance and a great deal of patience and charisma — is its own kind of capability. Plenty of men possess it as well. But the overwhelming majority of men aren't urged to do pinup shoots, and successful male tech CEOs aren't generally asked to strike come-hither poses in executive profiles. Barbie has had hundreds of careers. Not all of them require looking good in a swimsuit.