Backlash Barbie

We interrupt our regularly scheduled arguing about Israel to bring you a word from our digital consigliere, Laura Brahm. Laura is a freelance writer who periodically—i.e., every day—helps me figure out what I’m doing with this blog. This is her first guest blog here.

Apparently it’s a banner time for ambiguous feminist heroes—BeyoncéClaire Underwood…and now, Barbie.

This week, she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Mattel is marketing the campaign using the language of women’s empowerment (the hashtag is #unapologetic).Feminist Backlash Barbie

At first I thought this was funny and clever in a knowing, lipstick-feminism kind of way. Like Barbie was embracing her inner drag queen. But then things got ugly. In response to real live feminists who tried to rain on her beach party, Barbie took out a full page ad in the New York Times for an op-ed, “Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me.” She writes:

Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?

I suppose you could argue Barbie is indeed making a feminist rhetorical move here, insofar as she’s engaging in the time-honored practice of trashing other feminists. She goes on:

Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT.

Unless that last line is targeted at boys, she’s a little off base.

There’s been no shortage of brilliant, enraged responses to this campaign. But one aspect may get overlooked in the troll-feeding frenzy.

It’s funny Barbie should use the language of careers and the workplace. If only it really were the anti-pink, non-fun-having feminists who were holding women back from achieving their dreams or even just from being pretty at the office.

But the truth is we can’t be free to celebrate who we are at work if we have no First Amendment rights there. If we are subject to “at will” employment and have no paid parental leave or flexible hours enabling us to stay home when Skipper is sick.

In short, it’s not feminists who are telling you what color you can or cannot wear to work.

As a child, I loved Barbie. I still remember the gold lamé mini-dresses and the exciting hint of the glamour of being an independent grownup woman. But with ad campaigns like this one demonizing feminists, I will never buy her for my own daughter.

So, Barbie, I agree with you that “pink is not the problem.” But before you point your insufficiently separated finger at other women, take a closer look at your boss.


  1. Jara Handala February 20, 2014 at 11:25 pm | #

    Laura’s right, it all makes sense. (But are you sure she’s not that Israeli Attack Force babe doing the rounds?)

    So we have the aspiration – & the consequences – with the inevitable infographic:

    The hypothetical real-life Barbie:

    And the real-life one, from one of the centres of the world (for this week, anyway), Ukraine:

  2. Brian February 21, 2014 at 6:49 am | #

    Prof. Robin’s subtle hints about the link between the monotonous white blonde in Barbie and American capitalism have hit a bullseye it seems. If in doubt, look at the images floating about the internet of Fox News’ female news anchors – it’s a real life Barbie factory, mass produced by the unofficial Lord of Lucre, Rupert Murdoch.

  3. jonnybutter February 21, 2014 at 8:16 am | #

    Like any ‘good’ ad campaign, this one has layers of offensiveness, like waves of picante in a complex-tasting dish (but in a bad way!). A secondary or tertiary one is that the people who came up with the campaign are probably pretty lazy about thinking through the implications of what they’re doing. It’s a ‘creative”s job have an instinct about what it takes to ‘hit a nerve’ – they are in face desperate to find a nerve, any nerve. But like their less competent friends and clients in the political world, they don’t necessarily think it through much. I don’t say this primarily to excuse them: being casually, absent-mindedly offensive is kind of the definition of rudeness.

    Also, they photoshopped Barbie’s face and body. Oh yes they did.

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