I can’t stop thinking about the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Usually when it comes out it merits a small blip on my feminist radar, a minor annoyance or a peeve at best. But this year, the cover has me hot, and not in the Valentine’s Day sort of way.
I have been trying to gather my thoughts about why this cover makes me so irate, and a great discussion of this image in my Intro to Women’s and Gender studies class has helped me clarify and deepen my thoughts. I thought I would share a few here:
1. Barbie is not an athlete
I know that this is not a requirement of being in this special issue, so perhaps this criticism is more of the issue phenom itself and not this year’s selection. Sure, she does yoga and other activities, but she isn’t an Olympian.
2. Barbie is a children’s toy.
Perhaps I should be glad that popular culture is finally acknowledging what feminists have been arguing for decades: that Barbie is a sex object, one that I don’t want in the hands of my daughter. I feel vindicated. The fact that I have been fighting the Barbie tide–making me look like a crazy shrew of a mother–no longer feels as shrewish. The conflation of Barbie as children’s toy and Barbie as sex object swimsuit model makes my argument all the easier to make–and all the more painful.
3. Barbie is for the male gaze.
Being on the cover of this magazine for all intents and heteronormative purposes makes Barbie the object of the male gaze. Who is Barbie for? Little girls? Or grown adults (mainly the target audience of men)? If the answer is both, this culture has some deep soul searching to do.
4. This particular Barbie reminds us that the female body is a tool for capitalistic enterprises.
You can only get this Barbie at Target.com (she’s $19.99). Selling her image=selling the doll=selling out a little girl (simplistic, but I have an actual little girl I need to tend to, so it will have to do for now).
5. Barbie is not human.
It makes sense when a three-year-old gives a doll an active imagined life. It does not make sense when a company run by adults does the same thing. When I read a Mattel spokeswoman say that “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,” my head hurts. So the accomplishments of actual females is the same as the imaginary ones? We have to ask: Do those accomplishments means nothing in the material sense?
6. Barbie is plastic
So here’s where the true theoretical rubber hits the road. Barbie is a doll. She is PLASTIC, for fuck’s sake. And I was really stuck on why she was even on the cover until my students told me about the controversy over last year’s cover when Kate Upton was too fleshy, too big, too much, too genetically disadvantaged to be thinner. They helped me realize that this cover is in direct response to those criticisms: What safer way to avoid dealing with actual human flesh than putting plastic on the cover? We don’t even need Photoshop anymore. bell hooks reminds us of the problem actual flesh creates in “Beauty Within and Without.” By making the flesh disappear and putting a plastic doll designed in the image of the beauty myth–white, thin, blonde, long hair, perfect makeup, etc. (thanks, Naomi Wolf), SI gets to avoid having to deal with that messy problem of an actual fleshed woman.
I will write to Target and tell them what I think of them carrying this doll (really, I am just going to copy this post and let them know what I think. I give you permission to do the same). I know my voice isn’t loud enough to win out over the Barbie enthusiasts, but I am still going to make it heard. Maybe you would like to join me?