In the very week that American Olympic women athletes are piling-up medals in snowboard, skating, skiing and other sliding sports, Sports Illustrated has teamed-up with the toymaker Mattel to make it clear to girls everywhere that what really counts are not muscles and grit, but breasts and butts. In a breathtakingly cynical marketing ploy, Mattel has placed its iconic Barbie doll as the cover wrap around the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue that features a great deal of the female anatomy and almost no swimsuits, at least on the real cover. Next to the vast expanse of gluteus maximus that the three cover models proudly parade for all the world to see, Barbie looks like what she truly is…. a 55-year-old plastic doll in a slightly updated version of the black and white onesie she was born in sometime in 1959.
Actually, Barbie now appears to be starving to death. But I digress….
Bloomberg reports that Barbie sales have skyrocketed in the last week, proving once again the oldest marketing adage in the book: sex sells.
Barbie has always been the sex kitten of the kiddie set. Many moms, including my own, banned her from the house ages ago for precisely that reason. But old fashioned prudishness is not the reason why seeing Barbie paired with the SI Swimsuit almost-barenaked gals evokes an “ICK!” response at best. Nor is this about the well-known criticisms of Barbie’s unrealistic body image issues. This is about the “blurred lines” that uses a child’s icon alongside adult reading material in a way that comes off as just, well, sleazy. The swimsuit edition is a well known device for pandering to a certain demographic that loves to oogle nearly naked women. In an era rife with ugly tales of child sexual abuse, why would any responsible adults use a child’s toy in such a provocative manner? OK, “responsible adults” and marketeers may be divergent concepts, but still. SI and the readers who buy the swimsuit issue are entitled to their babes, but why include a baby’s toy in that steamy mix?
Mattel is using the vaguely incriminating slogan #Unapologetic for its Swimsuit Barbie marketing campaign. What are they not apologizing for anyway? Did they do something wrong? The idea, so they say, is to let the world know that Barbie makes no apologies for her figure. Of course she doesn’t. She’s a doll. She has no feelings. She has no brain. She’s a hunk of plastic. She is a creature of her corporate masters whose only concern appears to be how many more dolls they will sell with this particularly repulsive pairing of doll and dolls.
Sports Illustrated and Mattel could have teamed up to make Barbie an Olympic champion. Imagine how many girls would have rushed to buy Barbie clad in the cool snowboarder gear of Kaitlyn Farrington and Kelly Clark, gold and bronze medalists in the halfpipe. Or imagine the ambitions Barbie could have stoked had she worn the ski ensemble of mogul medalist Hannah Kearney, or the sleek slalom style of Julie Mancuso? Barbie could have gone for the lycra look of skeleton medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace or the glitz and glitter of Gracie Gold in a figure skating confection.
Barbie and her masters have missed an Olympic opportunity to inspire girls in a good way, to get them off their couches and into the gym, to show them that muscles and athleticism are the new standard for beauty.
By seeming to be more about the “Mad Men” era than the age of ski moguls and half pipe tricks and slopestyle champs, Mattel and Sports Illustrated have revealed a shocking lack of understanding for what really motivates girls and women to be #unapologetic — measurements of achievement that are not about waistlines and bustlines, but about finish times and medal counts.