Mattel's decision to allow Barbie to appear in the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition was, in my opinion, a powerful piece of brand messaging. But what is the message?
Is it that she is a beach girl who can do anything she wants? Yes, there is that. I think, however, that there is another, more subliminal message. I will write about that in a moment but first a little background:
I, as many of you, have long been fascinated by what is arguably the toy industry's most important contribution to world culture. Barbie has become a prism for how society thinks about beauty, self-esteem and sexuality.
To provide a sense of how important Barbie is to culture, consider an analysis I did in January of this year (see: “Barbie Rules; the NGram and tracking cultural importance”) I found that Barbie is mentioned in fiction and non-fiction writing more frequently than any other toy brand. Amazingly, she is mentioned almost four times as many times as Mickey Mouse and almost sixteen times more than GI Joe.
So, what Mattel does with its Barbie brand has an importance beyond toy sales. That is why it is notablle that not only did Mattel allow Sports illustrated to feature her but doubled down with full page ads in major newspapers bearing the all caps headline: “WHY POSING FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SUITS ME.” The ad included these powerful statements about women, girls and Barbie:
Barbie® dolls” aren’t the problem. Models choosing to pose in a bikini aren’t the problem. The assumption that women of any age should only be part of who they are in order to succeed is the problem.
Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT. The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything. They should celebrate who they are and never have to apologize for it.”
That is a pretty big push back to those who fault Barbie for being too sexualized or for providing an unobtainable image for girls to fulfill. But I see a more powerful message.
Go back to the top of this article and look closely at the two alternative covers pictured above. Consider the context: One picture shows flesh and blood models displaying a powerful sexuality. The other shows…a doll. A plastic figure that is clearly neither human nor sexy.