In the past, Mattel has downplayed Barbie's sex appeal, by marketing her to young girls as a politician, a physician, an ambassador for world peace, a veterinarian, an astronaut and a computer programmer, among other career-empowered roles. Indeed, Barbie has made her way into our family as one of her many athlete-personas, including Olympian, a NASCAR driver and a WNBA player. But now Mattel is re-branding its young girl's toy toward male sports fans as one of Sports Illustrated's soft-core, sexy swimsuit models. This is troubling for girls and their body image, as well as for serious female athletes. It is particularly unsettling given the prevalence of sexual abuse in sports and SI's Swimsuit issue's target male audience. Is anyone comfortable with Mattel and SI's repurposing of our daughter's imaginary play -- to sexually titillate adult male sports fans?
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. Especially when considering that young female athletes are increasingly subject to sexual abuse as part of their sport's experience, a trend that has been extensively documented by research. Work to end this abuse is made all the more difficult by the SI Swimsuit cover as male consumers are being sold a sexualized image that is literally a toy for pre-puberty girls. This is not simply a cultural debate regarding sexualization in the media; the negative impacts include the fact that many Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue readers work and volunteer in youth sports.
If only Barbie had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as one of her athlete-personas, in athletic poses, where girls could imagine themselves winning in the Olympics through their toy. Positive media coverage of women's sporting pursuits is vital for women to have a seat at the "sports" table. The media has the potential to promote girls and women's sports, not a stretch since girls and women represent 42 percent of high school athletes, 43 percent of college athletes and 46 percent of Olympians, and more than a dozen professional sports. Yet female athletes are represented in less than five percent of all sport media. Some research suggests that coverage is as low as 1.6 percent. Longitudinal research on the coverage of women athletes specifically in Sports Illustrated also replicates these findings; a recent study found that between 2000-2011 less than five percent of their covers featured a female athlete, with the amount of coverage unchanged since the 1980s, despite these historic high levels of female sports participation. This scarce amount of respectful media coverage that features women athletes performing their sport in their sports' uniforms poses a significant barrier for to achieving the goal of true gender equity in sports. This is because we know sex-appeal does little to promote women's sports in a sustainable way, particularly to the core father-daughter audience. Girls are looking for active, athletic life role models, and athletes should be naturals with their hard work and determination, their teamwork, advanced academic and professional success. Combined with Sports Illustrated's lack of coverage of women's sport feats, featuring Barbie on the cover of the swimsuit issue further contributes to the marginalization of girls and women as athletes to sports fans.
As a long-time advocate for girls and women's sports participation, we should care because the hefty research shows that sports participation provides a healthy antidote to these harmful cultural images that tell girls that they are valuable primarily for their sex appeal. Combining cultural icons such as the Sports Illustrated'sswimsuit issue and Barbie magnifies the overall problem of sexually objectifying and idealizing of women, instilling an unrealistic and unattainable body image in young girls that's actually harmful.
Use Mattel's hashtag #Unapologetic to tell Mattel what they think about overtly sexy Barbie being sold to adult male sports fans.
Here are some suggestions:
Anyone comfortable with Barbie's new goal of our daughter's imaginary play -- to titillate grown men? #Unapologetic @TuckerCenter @Hogshead3au @ProfCooky
Research shows SPORTS are the antidote to avalanche of images telling girls to be sexy. #Unapologetic
#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
By Nancy Hogshead-Makar, civil rights attorney and triple Olympic gold medalist in swimming; reviews by Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D. Senior Lecturer in the School of Kinesiology and Associate Director, The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, and Cheryl Cooky, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and Department of Health & Kinesiology at Purdue University