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Unapologetic Defiance: the Post-Feminist Barbie

Barbie graces the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover

Barbie graces the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover

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. Read the rest of this entry