Controversy over Barbie posing in the 2014 Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated is hardly surprising in an age where women (and men) are speaking up against the objectification of females that is present across the world. And let’s be honest: Sports Illustrated has done its share to present women as beautiful, stunning objects for decades. Beginning in 1964, SI has provided pages of barely-dressed females in seductive poses with eyes just longing for someone to take them, to devour them in whatever manner the consumer feels fit. The swimsuit issues have little to do with swimming or any other sport, and much to do with pleasing men by presenting the best side of women: their tanned, smooth, curved, available bodies. Though the magazine offers kudos to the women for their accomplishments and successes, it is the female physique that is most admired and praised.
And this year, the magazine has outdone itself and chosen to flaunt an actual object. Alongside human women will stand the infamous plastic doll that has been accused of contributing to the unrealistic ideals of how a woman should look. Silky hair, big eyes, perfectly-shaped lips, legs for days, and smooth skin. What better representation of the type of woman that belongs in SI than Barbie?
The articles, posts, and tweets that have come forward show the blurriness of the line between the female as a person or an object. It seems we have embraced Barbie as an actual person…one who has goals, careers, feelings, and the new unapologetic attitude that makes Mattel proud. Yes, Barbie gets her place along the other women in the magazine. But her spotlight is earned not because of her resume, but because of her hot body in a swimsuit. No reason to apologize miss, you fit the mold!
Now, let’s be fair. I loved Barbie growing up. I have at least a dozen of her and her friends that I have passed on to my daughter. I remember the days of dressing her, combing her hair, and having her walk gracefully off to various parts of the dollhouse to get on with her happy life. In Barbie’s defense, some have claimed she may be the most feminist doll out there. With over 150 career outfits, her own horse, and that snazzy pink convertible, it could be accurate to say that she has provided some positive contributions in addition to the unrealistic body image she has helped to cement in the hearts and minds of young girls. We would certainly be mistaken to claim that Barbie is the main problem when it comes to the objectification of women. As Charlotte Alter writes, “Barbie may be aiming to be the poster child for female empowerment…let’s not discard her just yet.” She poses unapologetic for who she is and how she looks, and I would agree that she may be the best of the worst when it comes to the pink toy aisle littered with Monster High and Bratz dolls.
However, we often become unapologetic for two reasons. 1) We actually don’t have (or don’t believe we have) a reason to apologize because we meet the criteria for what is acceptable or desired; or 2) We have given up the fight for something and decided ‘if you can’t beat em, join em.’ Barbie, and the actual human beings at Mattel, obviously feel justified that Barbie has joined her objectified counterparts in SI. In fact, Mattel is attempting to spin it so that women feel empowered to strut their stuff regardless of how they look (easy for perfectly shaped plastic to say). Yet, they may be ignorant to the ways in which they’ve joined the game in which the worth of women is decided upon by what they have to show and to what extent they decide to reveal it.
Yet, women may not be the only ones objectified by the relentless media tactics. If Barbie is the object to be consumed, what does that make Ken? And back to the real world in which we are speaking about actual humans…if females are objects for males to behold, to crave, to acquire, then what is the primary task of men?
The expectations we have of men in many areas of life may help answer this question. In general, it seems we expect males to consume. “Real” men can take in the world. They go after what they want and they get it. They’re expected to eat, and eat big. Steaks, burgers, whole pizzas. Men who eat salads or who cannot finish their meal stand out as odd, hardly a manly man by most standards. We also respect men who can hold their liquor. No one applauds a lightweight. And while food and drink are tangible consumptions, if we expand our term we can surely think of other areas in which men are expected to obtain and consume. Men are taught that they are to acquire the best of their worlds in order to truly be a success. A grown man brings in the income, secures the big home, and buys the nice car. While this certainly doesn’t apply to all men and there is often an expectation for men to also be providers, the general message many men seem to receive is that their task is to take it all in. No thinking, no argument, just go out there and get it.
And real men, they get the girls. Not just any girl either. As consumers, their job is to find the best piece of meat. No sloppy seconds! Once they have her, they are expected to enjoy. And at one end of the continuum, to discard when finished and move on to another item on the menu. Women are the objects, men the consumers. The man is not given permission to focus on emotions or intimacy. That would be “weak.” No, he is expected to be a man: swallow any pain or need for genuine attachment, and get the goods. A human garbage disposal. Consume, digest, and cleared out for more.
And the market benefits. If we can create stunning objects and convince men they are to attain them, we have a fool-proof system to make bank. SI and countless others provide the meat and care little about what that does to those who consume it. No matter that those men feel empty after the disposal system has run its course, we’ll simply keep providing the next meal. A more decadent, tempting meal, that will be sure to satisfy even the more picky and perhaps desensitized men.
Yes, Barbie is expected to present herself as the most desirable object for Ken. Women spend countless amounts of time, effort, and money to shape themselves to be trophies or arm candy for men to choose from. That is their job. And Ken is expected to be the best object as well. No woman wants to be consumed by just anything. She wants a consumer worthy of the task. He should be attractive and nicely-shaped himself, but even more, he should know his role. Which men are sought after? Sensitive men who show human emotion and desire to attach to another human in a vulnerable relationship? Hardly. Women often feel drawn to men who can handle their objects. Males who have that air about them. They seek to acquire and are successful in doing so. And to consume without particular attachment or contentment with what they have. Women often attract to men who are dismissive, able to detach seamlessly. Men who seem to be on the hunt, who thirst for more. Ladies often want to be the one…that one object that finally satisfies the other.
Now, this description is in no way fully accurate for many people. The caveat here, and thankfully there is one, is that many men and women recognize and live in ways that triumph over this mentality. I know many men and women who know the value of being human and who love and respect themselves and others.
However, I believe we are naïve if we go on thinking this does not affect most of us in some way. It’s subtle and subconscious for many of us, yet still very much a part of our psyche. And while I believe women are often more objectified than men (at least explicitly), it’s important to acknowledge that a person who truly feels human and alive does not attach to objects in healthy ways. That is to say, to treat another person as an object, one must in some way also objectify themselves. Genuine relationships require a vulnerability and relatedness that cannot exist between object and human. As Ken consumes, he is also demoralized as a garbage disposal. And this is not because women are garbage, but because they have been degraded into objects or food that leaves them feeling chewed up and disposed of, while Ken is left feeling insatiable and empty.
And it’s a vicious cycle and one that we must all choose to fight. Barbie and Ken belong to one another. Object to object, they can enjoy their lives in dollhouses and plastic cars. The rest of us deserve to embrace each another as human beings with much more to offer than unrealistic proportions and fake, cheesy smiles. My hope is that, as our children grow and play with dolls like Barbie and Ken, the line between object and human will become more clear and they can offer the dolls a taste of what it’s like to be human, instead of the other way around.