Objectifying an Object: Barbie and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is a friendly annual reminder that the media’s obsession with sexualizing and objectifying women is still very much alive. Despite the magazine’s focus on sports and athleticism, the swimsuit issue focuses on the bodies of conventionally attractive women—almost none of whom are actually athletes.
This year is a bit different, but not in a good way: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the issue, the cover of 1,000 issues of the magazine feature none other than Barbie. “The Doll that Started it All” is shown wearing a version of her iconic black and white swimsuit. Mattel promoted the cover with the Twitter hashtag #unapologetic.
So the question is, is it offensive to objectify an actual object?
It makes sense that Sports Illustrated and Mattel would team up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the swimsuit issue with an image of Barbie. Sports Illustrated has always been unapologetic about their overtly sexual images. Barbie is an icon of conventional female beauty and the kind of idealized body that swimsuit models have.
Mattel plugged the cover as a way to celebrate Barbie’s status as a legend, and even released a statement by “Barbie” herself, titled “Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me.” In it, she defends the choices of models that pose in the magazine and insists that her numerous career endeavors prove she is a well-rounded and ambitious woman, not a just a pretty face.
“Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT,” says “Barbie” in her op-ed. “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.”
This is entirely true, of course. Any individual woman should be allowed to make her own choices, and assuming the real human models in the swimsuit issue feel positively about their sexualized images, more power to them.
The difference (shockingly) is that Barbie is not human and does not make her own choices. She is part of a multibillion-dollar brand that is targeted towards young girls. And despite Mattel’s continuous efforts to portray her as a positive role model, she still represents the kind of conventional, idealized beauty standard that is ultimately harmful.
Girls who play with Barbie dolls are still being told that having a certain body type and a certain kind of beauty is highly important. When “Barbie” states that girls should endeavor to “lead a company while gorgeous”, “gorgeous” means thin with large breasts and long blonde hair.
Unlike Kate Upton and other human models who own their bodies, Barbie’s body and choices are owned by a corporation that is specifically designed to shape the mindsets and self-esteem of adolescent girls.
Equating Barbie with these hyper-sexualized swimsuit models just reinforces the idea that her looks are of paramount importance. Despite all of Barbie’s career accomplishments, Mattel’s choice to feature her on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue brings her right back to object status.
Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.