Mattel and Sports Illustrated are teaming up this year to put Barbie on the cover of a limited number of SI's Swimsuit edition. And that sexualization of a little girl's play doll fits into a strange tendency to place cartoons and animated women into magazine ads in suggestive and semi-nude positions.
It's an advertising play, no doubt, both to pump to some life into flagging Barbie sales and into the bikini-filled print issue, now celebrating its 50th year. Billed under an "Unapologetic" tagline, Barbie will get a four pages of swimsuit-wearing photos — all taken by longtime SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. — as well as a limited-edition Sports Illustrated Barbie (only at Target!). And most importantly, 1,000 issues with Barbie in a swimsuit on the cover.
While perhaps the most brazen example yet of sexualizing the children's toy, the concept isn't exactly novel. Look at how Marge Simpson's image has been tarted up over the years. "Springfield's sexiest MILF," Maxim called her in 2004 when she appeared on the cover of the magazine. Marge also posed on a bunny chair in Playboy in 2009 as a tag to "The Devil in Marge Simpson." Weird.
Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition got in on that same cartoon game, too, sticking the green M&M in a sultry ad in 2010. Last year, the M&M took to the arctic (left) much like cover girl Kate Upton and pulled down her outer green layer in a strange attempt at chocolate-y sexuality. The green M&M has cleavage, too, apparently?
As to why Mattel is putting Barbie on the cover of an adult, male-oriented magazine, a spokesperson told AdWeek that the company sees Barbie as a cultural icon and not a children's toy. But while enjoying M&Ms and The Simpsons is age- and gender-neutral, Barbie is obviously a product targeted at girls, cultural icon or not. Still, Mattel wants to enter into the public debate on whether Barbie is a boundary-breaking woman or whether she creates unrealistic expectations for girls. “This program is about maintaining relevance and having a point of view on a societal conversation that has surrounded Barbie and women for years,” they say. That conversation begins with Barbie in a swimsuit on the cover of a magazine meant for middle-aged men to ogle over. In terms of the "conversation," it's certainly got people talking.