The Swimsuit Issue

When Barbie appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, all the usual Barbie hate ensued. For me, it feels so 30 years ago.


Barbie's front cover debut

It was headline news a couple months ago. Barbie, the doll, was featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, part of a tribute for the fifty-year anniversary celebration of the magazine’s most popular annual issue. The New York Times, Forbes, CNN, and the Washington Post covered the story; dozens more articles appeared in online publications. “At age fifty-five,” quipped the accompanying feature article in Sports Illustrated, Barbie was the magazine’s oldest “rookie” model but “we’re not buying her ‘no plastic surgery’ claim.” In the days that followed, there was so much negative buzz flying through cyberspace about her appearance in the magazine that Mattel, Barbie’s representative, tweeted that Barbie was #unapologetic about her posing in the Swimsuit issue. Sports Illustrated followed, echoing the same sentiment.

A few weeks later, it was announced that the Girl Scouts was severing its partnership with Barbie, since she no longer lives up to the ideals that both she and the Girl Scouts once shared: She is no longer a member of the “Be Anything, Do Anything” team that inspires girls to “dream and explore a world without limits.” The Barbie Scout Patch will be ripped from the sashes of Girl Scouts nationwide, and Barbie, one can only surmise, will be #unapologetic about this event as well.

What is all the brouhaha about? In the Sports Illustrated article, Barbie wears a modest, one-piece, black-and-white striped swimsuit — the very same suit that she wore for her first appearance over fifty years ago (and kudos to her for still being able to squeeze into it). For decades, Barbie has beaten away detractors, many times over the dimensions of her inhumanly curvaceous body. Okay, so she has a body shape not found in nature. Well, she is a doll. Would it really be fun to dress and redress a doll whose proportions are the equivalent of the average, real-life woman? Consider the struggle of pulling a minuscule pair of stretch jeans over chopstick-sized thighs that are, nevertheless, thunderous. Is this fun? In truth, does any real-life woman — of any size for that matter — relish the seasonal excursion to try on swimsuits?

Over the decades, Mattel countered feminist critique and “poor role model” accusations by creating Barbie the Aviator, the Surgeon, the Astronaut, the Presidential Candidate, in all, over a hundred and thirty different professions for the gal. And now, when she returns to her first career — she made her debut as a “Teenage Fashion Model” — the invective grows, although it’s clearly only a momentary stroll down memory lane for her.

I never understood the ferocity toward Barbie. My sister and I grew up with a large collection of Barbie dolls — there were many different characters in the seventies, not just the same Barbie replicated in different guises. We spent hours creating scenarios for them. It was play therapy for us; we were able to express emotions and thoughts through the dolls that we did not have the courage to do in real life. Neither one of us grew up to be another Michele Bachmann. For decades I have listened to surprised, dismayed, or angry commentary: “You played with Barbies! I would never let my daughter… I hated Barbie and everything about her!” I never paid much mind to it because it seemed trivial.

Even in 1983, Barbie was considered a bad role model for girls and great fodder for feminist rhetoric. I was in college then, and decided to make a stop-motion animation film using Barbie dolls during an elective class in filmmaking. It was called The Affair, and ran under five minutes and was less than one hundred feet long. Using Barbie and Ken as actors gave me the flexibility and control that I needed, in the style of Cecil B. DeMille. Besides, there were dozens of dolls up in my parent’s attic just waiting to make their screen debuts.

Stop-motion animation makes a three-dimensional object (such as Barbie) come to life by shooting individual frames of film while the object is moved incrementally. Moving Barbie’s arm from waist level to above her head requires twenty camera clicks; each position is held for five frames. Since film runs at twenty-four frames-per-second, four positions, held for five frames, adds up to about a second of screen time. A three-second goodbye wave consists of one hundred and twenty single shots. If this sounds tedious, I can guarantee that it was.

At the premiere — an afternoon reserved for screening all completed student films — I was as edgy as any producer or director of a major motion picture. But seconds into the film the audience laughed and then laughed again. I sat back in my chair, relieved. The Affair was a hit, and, before graduation, I screened it at various parties, both on and off campus. I added a soundtrack to The Affair sometime later, using music I found on an LP called Music for Home Movies from the local library.

Occasionally people still question my fascination with Barbie, and I remain unrepentantly her supporter. Barbie is a tiny model of a human being, a simulacrum, a toy. Why is there so much sexist rhetoric and feminist backlash about her appearance in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and not about the live women who pose for it? What about the living models who appear in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, or in the pages of Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and so on? More to the point, do those who shield their daughters from Barbie’s negative influence ever read or buy these magazines? Do they ever stop to be offended by the female models draping themselves over the hoods of automobiles in magazine and television ads? There are so many more sexist, negative female images using live, human women than the imagery, wardrobe, and appearances of one eleven-and-a-half inch doll.

Sales of Barbie have fallen off through the years, and perhaps this is inevitable, a good sign for women all over. Barbie’s appearance in Sports Illustrated was a calculated move on the part of both the magazine and Mattel, a tongue-in-cheek marketing ploy, a game and harmless attempt to resurrect a flagging career. Still, I remain an #unapologetic Barbie supporter, applauding the dreams that she still seems to carry with her, always with a smile and fashionably dressed, into her old age. • 15 April 2014


Francine Douwes Whitney has worked in traditional media and non-linear media production, producing award-winning in the media of film, video, CD-ROM, and for the web for almost twenty years. She is a 1989 MFA graduate from Columbia University’s School of the Arts Film Division. She also holds a degree in chemistry from Drexel University. She is currently working on a family memoir about the Dutch East Indies and World War II and teaches landscape graphics and Google Sketch-up at New York Botanical Garden.

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