Why #Unapologetic Barbie Might Just Help The Body Positive Cause

As a feminist blogger who consistently deconstructs the way things like Barbie and digitally altered images of models objectify women and hold them to unachievable standards of beauty, I completely understand the growing rage over the frame of Barbie’s newest job as an #unapologetic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition model. What exactly is Barbie refusing to apologize for, one is left wondering? Her anatomically impossible proportions that have, in fact, been proven to make young girls feel badly about their bodies? Or for sending the message that not even digitally altered models (most of whom meet the criteria for anorexia) are suitable for idealized objectification? But critiques that frame this campaign as the peak of such sexist objectification (though certainly valid -- it’s hard to think of a more blatant example of objectification than literally replacing humans with a doll) miss an important point: Not only does Barbie’s “Unapologetic” campaign reveal the power and influence body image activists have achieved -- it might just shoot itself in the foot.

I doubt Mattel has any illusions that Barbie is an actual role model for positive body image. It’s more likely that in the face of disappointing and declining sales numbers, Mattel has observed how brands like Dove have successfully embraced body positive language to sell their products, or noticed that body positive campaigns like Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt reach as many as 2 million people, and have therefore re-appropriated their rhetorical strategies for the sake of sales.

But while, from a marketing perspective, it makes sense to rip off take inspiration from such successful campaigns, Mattel seems confused about who the audience for this particular publicity stunt actually is. It’s not body image activists, or even women generally, that are buying or are even supportive of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. It’s men -- an estimated 42 million men, to be exact. And in that way, it seems that beyond being denigrating to women, this campaign might just be shooting itself in the foot. As Courtney Martin astutely points out in the New York Times, by replacing models with a doll, Sports Illustrated is stripping away their readers’ excuses that they’re sexual beings who just want to “appreciate” beautiful women, and, by swapping those women for sexualized images of a literal doll, strips away their excuses and forces them to confront the way in which they’ve implicitly objectified models and women generally.

So while it would be easy to frame this campaign as unilaterally bad, perhaps there’s an (ironic) silver lining: maybe replacing images of women with that of a doll will actually force those who have (#)unapologetically consumed those images in the past to realize that maybe they should be apologizing after all -- that doing so isn’t “appreciation”, but objectification, plain and simple.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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