Unapologetic Defiance: the Post-Feminist Barbie
Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has been greeted by exceptionally zealous defenses as well as fevered attacks on the doll’s representation of femininity, sexuality, and consumption. Barbie is often reduced to monolithic symbolism: e.g., Barbie as hypersexualized breasty flame; ditzy hedonist; or a model that “girls can do anything.” Such simplifications tell us very little about why the doll has been so compelling to over a half-century of consumers, and Mattel has often remained studiously separated from discussions about Barbie and sexuality; instead, Mattel suggests that Barbie is a sort of “blank slate” onto which children project their unfettered imaginations.
This week, though, Barbie appears in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside flesh-and-blood models, an appearance that comes nearly simultaneous with Mattel’s ads that proclaim that Barbie is “unapologetic.” The embrace of Barbie’s inescapable sexuality and the brazen pronouncement that she is not apologetic is an interesting shift in Barbie’s social meanings that reflects Mattel’s willingness to celebrate Barbie’s idealized beauty and attack the doll’s critics.
Barbie’s new “unapologetic” attitude comes at a so-called “post-feminist” moment in which many popular observers have rejected arbitrary sexual discipline and moral repression. Sports Illustrated’s annual soft-core carnality fits neatly into a transparent discourse on sexual freedom that includes American Apparel’s deluded advocacy for unfettered sexuality and the shallow nostalgia for Mad Men’s “other-era sexism” (a series celebrated with a Barbie and Ken Mad Men set). These discourses react publicly against sexual repression and apparently outdated morals but advocate for few concrete codes in their place and take little aim on structural gendered inequalities.
Once reluctant to be ensnared in charged discussions of Barbie’s sexuality, Mattel has now apparently embraced the doll’s sexuality as one dimension of her “unapologetic” attitude. Barbie is now candidly conceding that she is in fact at least in part about beauty and sexual desire, and the post-feminist tagline of “unapologetic” suggests that Mattel is candid and even proud of the doll’s materialization of beauty ideals. Time’s Charlotte Alter sympathized with Barbie, suggesting that “It’s hard not to feel sorry for Barbie. Ruthlessly attacked, snatched out of the hands of doting 6-year-olds by politically correct parents and usurped by fishnet-clad hussies with none of her dignity and professionalism, Barbie dutifully keeps paying the insurance on her Barbie Glam Convertible and the mortgage on her Malibu Dreamhouse.” Alter’s rhetorical caricature of such unfair “politically correct” attacks leads her to accept that “now Barbie’s makers have decided to fight back and turn the conversation about her absurd proportions around.”
Barbie is compelling because she materializes gender for youth consumers who are actively toying with gender identities, sexuality, and the body. Barbie is accompanied by an enormous range of accessories that children use to “play” with adult roles, and most critical commentary on Barbie has revolved around the imaginative possibilities Barbie frames. For much of Barbie’s career after the early 1960s her play options have focused on somewhat conservative roles (e.g., the 1995 “So Much to Do” laundry playset) or apolitical ones (e.g., the Mod and then Malibu eras were spent lounging at the beach or out of the public eye). However, Barbie designer Charlotte Johnson intoned that Barbie did not do “rough housework,” and she and Barbie creator Ruth Handler were professional women who aspired for a doll that framed ambitious roles for girls. Mattel did not sell Barbie with housekeeping accessories, initially resisting even a boyfriend and then introducing one who was at least initally an unassuming boy-next-door dweeb; instead, Barbie focused on high style and professional occupations.
Mattel and Barbie’s champions often romanticize children’s ability to imagine gendered alternatives with the dolls, clothes, and playsets marketed for Barbie. This week, for instance, Ruth Handler biographer Robin Gerber argued in the New York Times that “Barbie has allowed millions of little girls to play out rich fantasies of adult life, and achieve their dreams.” Gerber asks rhetorically if Barbie contributes “to a sexist culture that values women’s bodies over our brains and talent?,” and she imagines Handler’s response would be “Only if we let her.” This perhaps assumes that youth consumers have considerable power to step outside deep-seated ideological norms. Nevertheless, a survey of nearly any flea market will reveal boxes of Barbies with radical new hair styles, non-Mattel clothing, and accessories appropriated from other toys: those dolls are testimony to the ways children can push outside the inherited play options that Mattel structures for kids.
The newly “unapologetic” Barbie implies that she was once compelled to conceal some dimension of herself for which she has now seized ownership. We are left to imagine if it is her sexuality or beauty that she has publicly embraced, or if she is instead simply lashing out at those observers who have dared to challenge Barbie’s representation of gender. In the 50th wintertime swimsuit issue, Barbie takes her place among swimsuit “legends,” models such as Christie Brinkley who appeared in the magazine historically, and Mattel indicates 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.”
Barbie sales fell 13% over the 2013 holiday quarter, continuing a steady skid in the doll’s sales, and now Mattel may be defensively staking a claim to a picture of femininity that increasingly fewer consumers find compelling. A Mattel spokesperson suggested that the swimsuit issue has been burdened by the same attacks on beauty as Barbie has weathered for a half-century: “As with Barbie, every year the swimsuit edition sparks conversations about women and body image, and Sports Illustrated stands unapologetically behind this issue that women, in reality, love. Unapologetic is a rally cry to embrace who you are and to never have to apologize for it.” Mattel is not simply unapologetic about Barbie, though; they are actively attacking those who have criticized the doll and its gendered symbolism.
Marlys J. Pearson and Paul R. Mullins
1999 Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3(4):225-259.
Barbie Sports Illustrated image from Advertising Age
Barbie Swimsuit Issue video from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit You Tube