It’s that time before a meeting when people are having free-floating side conversations and the topic of Barbie appearing in Sports Illustrated comes up. Only I have misremembered it as Playboy. Like we’d have said in middle school, same difference.
My colleague identifies this as “confirmation bias.” Which is a fair cop, but I guess you could say I am … unapologetic. I am middle aged and cynical.
Is Barbie a woman we—and we as in men, not we as in 7-year-old girls—love? A role model? It’s such a tedious, well-trodden path of collegiate debate that I can’t even believe I’m writing about it, but on the other hand, here we are all these years later debating the messages that come with giving little girls an unrealistic body image toy, the appeal of it for grown men, society’s comfort with female sexuality only when it serves a commercial purpose, etc., etc. Are we still having these conversations?
Oh, wait a minute, are they pandering to us? Do they want middle aged women to connect with their Barbie-approval? Oh, yeah, sorry, ladies, Barbie’s not stupid; she’s totally hot.
And, also, are there actually women in real life who ever wear just heels and a bathing suit? Where is she going dressed like that? Who is she being a role model for in those sandals? Someone get her a nice Boden beach tunic.
I had half-heard the Barbie story on NPR the other night and they had mentioned something about Target selling the Barbie swimsuit. I assumed, incorrectly, that they were selling the Barbie swimsuit, which is kind of icky, whether for girls or women, ugh, which is worse?, and not unlike, in my mind, how BHS in the UK had done a line of children’s clothing with the Playboy bunny logo on it, but now that I look for Target Barbie swimsuit what I find is that that Target is selling a remake of the original doll that is appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and that this doll is not intended for children, but “For the adult collector.” And that’s icky, too.
As it happens, the NPR story ended with the line “The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is one step away from Playboy magazine,” the commentator said. “It is potentially sending the wrong message to girls.”
Not that all girls will hear, receive or care about the message. Teenage girls are bombarded with messages, both well-meaning and malicious. They have their own stuff to deal with without having to worry about what a lot of adults think they know about what they think. The thing about being a teenage girl is that you don’t objectify yourself. You don’t think of yourself that way, which is great. It’s just that the rest of the world is busy objectifying and defining you, which sucks.
I am told that “reputation” is still a factor during rush week at our state universities. For all the empowerment girls allegedly have they are still condemned if they cross the line by acting the way so much of our culture is encouraging them to act or dress. We are constantly commenting on their looks, their bodies and their self-presentation in a way that we don’t with boys. As a girl, you have to discern and then tread the line very carefully because even if mainstream culture is cruder and more explicit or “permissive,” girls are still being judged by a double-standard. And in some ways it is harder now because the lines are so blurred, but still there are lines.
The fact that Barbie is in the swimsuit issue says that Mattel wants the doll to be a sex symbol and is taking a so what if we do (unapologetic) stance. Sports Illustrated is embracing the discomfort. Mattel is promoting Barbie as a symbol of this empowerment and tagging the campaign Unapologetic. In some ways, it seems kind of sad and irrelevant and yet it is happening.
On the heels of all of this, as it were, I find myself in Victoria’s Secret. Even the name is worth a thousand 200-level women’s studies term papers. As much as I hate so much of what they do, I go there because they have fitters who don’t creep out teenage girls. The fitters at Victoria’s Secret are friendly and cute. Rather than being the henchwomen of dysmorphia, they soothe the teenage girl embarrassment/angst, and for this I am grateful. Do you want your daughter’s fitting room experience to be uncomfortable or one that makes her feel at ease? Also, the fitting system is efficient and organized in a way that puts the local department stores to shame.
This all happens in the very purposefully designed boudoir/bordello-styled fitting rooms with their saloon-style doors and copperplate script that names each chocolate box of a changing cubicle with words like “Bombshell” and “Angel.” I know better than to think that they could label the doors “Radiologist” and “Bus Driver,” but it makes you wonder, who’s doing what to whom? Whose fantasy are we living? Is Barbie a child’s toy or an adult collectible? Is this what women want or what men want us to want? The fitter is a philosophy major. She makes small talk about how the NSA tracks data on the game logic of people who play Angry Birds .
When I go to Target, unavoidable consequence of living where I do, I notice that there is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit display in the women’s clothing section. They don’t have the Barbie suit, on trend as it is with the diagonal/chevron print, but they have others, the swimwear of other role models, offered to us by the men who leer at our outgrown toys.