Everyday Theology: Barbie has no place in men’s magazine

"The marketing encourages and reinforces the idea that women are sex symbols."

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. 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. Others argue that Barbie represents choices for women.  Mattel describes Barbie, who apparently has had 150 different careers including a run at the presidency of the United States, 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 1960’s, 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. No one I knew even remotely resembled her physically, let alone possessed her extensive and glamorous wardrobe.

Nor did Barbie have a negative affect on my self-image. I never felt inadequate because I did not look like her.

But then, I grew up in the age of black and white television, and party telephone lines. The technology to bombard kids with sexual images and messages did not exist. I could not follow Barbie on social media where she has blogged and tweeted the message that it is okay to be a model and wear a bikini.

Of course it is okay; girls can and do model swimsuits – for catalogues like Sears, and other department stores that sell kids clothes.  They should not be posing in swimsuits for a sexy issue of a magazine for men.

It’s the marketing of this Barbie, and not the doll itself, that bothers me. The marketing encourages and reinforces the idea that women are sex symbols. Playing to both the imagination of children and adults, the marketing 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 that Barbie’s association with a bevy of 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 dolls are playthings. It is a poor message for everyone.

The partnership of Barbie and SI Swimsuit has nothing to do with empowering choices for girls no matter how the executives spin it. It is, unapologetically, about making a profit for companies. And while there are those who think the campaign is clever and witty, in my view, it is unprincipled and somewhat sad.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com.