Photo: Courtesy of Sports Illustrated.
We've had our differences with Barbie and the influence she has had on public perceptions of female beauty. Those differences remain. But, today, we want to congratulate her on what is in many ways a compelling and well-worded piece written "by Barbie" (a.k.a. by the PR department at Mattel, presumably) that takes on some of the criticism that has picked up on the Internet in particular over the last few years.
On the heels of her recent appearance in Sports Illustrated, the letter is problematic in some ways and empowering in others. Ultimately, though, it's very refreshing to see Mattel opening a discussion about feminism that goes beyond just putting Barbie in the Oval Office and claiming it's changing the world. Barbie, in this piece, addresses issues that touch both her and women in general, including those who pose for photos for a living. On the subject of Sports Illustrated models in general, she notes: "Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?"
Of course, she's right — Kate Upton doesn't need permission to show off her breasts in zero gravity, nor should she feel ashamed about it or be labeled as some kind of morally bankrupt person because of her body and what she chooses to do with it. Barbie's statement does gloss over the real issue at heart of more nuanced complaints against Sports Illustrated, though. Those who do take issue with the way models are presented in the magazine don't criticize the models for posing, but rather, the magazine's tendency to infantilize, objectify, hypersexualize, homogenize, and generally reduce women to sex symbols without much thought for their undoubtedly multifaceted personages. Barbie says that "the assumption that women of any age should only be part of who they are in order to succeed is the problem," and that's true, but there's a convincing argument to be made that publications like Sports Illustrated don't actually offer an outlet for comprehensive self-expression, much less a platform for beautiful women who don't fit a particular mold.
But, the fact remains that a lot of faux-feminist criticism of Barbie, of Kate Upton, of Beyoncé, or any woman who shows skin is more based on slut-shaming than anything else, and the old stereotype that a certain type of femininity is indicative of stupidity. And, in response to that, Barbie rightfully points out: "Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes...Let her grow up not judged by how she dresses, even if it’s in heels; not dismissed for how she looks, even if she’s pretty." Once more, these are all good points, but it is also a tad reductive. Women should not be judged by how they look — we can agree on that. Our appearances should not be taken as any indication of our mental faculties or personality traits. But, we would have liked to see her mention here that being judged for the way you look as a female human is not simply based on the assumption that makeup, blonde hair, and a pink shirt make you stupid. Rather, it comes from the idea that whatever you look like, it's wrong in some way. "Ugly" women, "pretty" women, blonde-haired women, black women, women of many different types will be judged in some way for how they look — and, in fact, so will men, though the conclusions and judgments are different and perhaps less influential. This is a human problem, not a problem faced by pretty people alone, and for Barbie to imply that all criticisms of her legacy are based on the fact that she's too pretty does a disservice both to the doll's history and to legitimate feminist critiques that have been leveraged against her.
While we do think there are some issues to point out with this piece, we are proud of Barbie for this editorial. We respect Mattel for opening this conversation and we hope that, in the future, the brand will be even more willing to respect the wants and needs of its consumers as we go bravely forward into a more respectful and inclusive age that benefits all people. Here's one line from her letter we can definitely stand behind with complete confidence: "The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything. They should celebrate who they are and never have to apologize for it." That is a message that young girls can and should take to heart.