Barbie the SI Swimsuit Model: What should girls’ orgs do?

Funding for girl justice is tight. Organizations struggle to make payroll and keep the doors open, while hustling for grants and donor dollars.

Increasingly, organizations turn to corporate partners to make the books balance. Partnerships can be a great way for both institutions to boost their brand, and a way for organizations to engage new volunteers and donors.

But it has to be the right partner. Girl Scouts of the USA announced a partnership with Barbie and Mattel in 2013. You can check out some of their web content here. Girls Inc. is a previous recipient of Mattel’s largesse (though their partnership has since ended).

Barbie isn’t my favorite toy, but I’m mostly okay with this. While Barbie promulgates a ridiculous idea of beauty, she’s also a doctor, scientist and president. I blame photoshopped images of “real” women more than a toy for women and girls’ body image issues.

In Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, authors Jennifer Buamgardner and Amy Richards devote several pages to the Barbie/Girls Inc. partnership. The gist of it: “girls don’t want to be Barbie, they want to use Barbie to explore different things they can be.” Girls organizations should take the money and push Mattel to be better to its customers (girls).

Well, it’s time to push. This year, Barbie is posing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. What the what?!? That’s plain weird, as Nancy Hogshead-Makar explains in her piece in the Huffington Post:

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue normally features adults marketed to other adults. But mixing young girlhood and sexuality and selling it to male sports fans is … just creepy.

Mattel, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue that Barbie is actually an empowering toy for girls, and then sell images of her scantily clad body to adult men.

So what are non-profits to do? Drop Barbie? Mattel needs to make a choice. If they want to be part of the Girl Justice movement, they need to stop these kinds of shenanigans. If they don’t, they can kiss their partnerships goodbye.

As supporters of girl justice, we can help push Mattel back to the slightly less dark side. Hogsgeader-Makar suggests a twitter campaign (using Barbie’s hashtag #Unapologetic) to make it clear that we don’t approve. Here are some of her ideas:

  • #Unapologetic Adult male sexuality combined with a girl’s pre-puberty toy is creepy. @Barbie
  • We liked athlete-Barbie more than sex-toy @Barbie. @NASCAR @Olympic @WNBA @SI @WomensSportsFoundation
  • @SI and @Mattel objectify women — with an actual doll. #Unapologetic @TuckerCenter @Hogshead3au @ProfCooky

Let’s put some pressure on Mattel! Let’s make them stand with girls. As this article in The Economist explains, Barbie’s sales are sliding, as less model-esque dolls take their place. Maybe our work is paying off, and the time is right for Mattel to make some big changes to its 55 year-old product. And if we can’t get it done, I bet the girls we work with will.


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