Two sexist symbols of waning cultural relevance joined forces this week when Barbie graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. It was the perfect match: Both the doll and the swimsuit issue have been derided by feminists for presenting an unattainable standard of feminine beauty. Anticipating a backlash from said feminists — not to mention conservatives and parents — for featuring a girls’ toy on the cover of a magazine generally assumed to be jerk-off material for men, Mattel released a faux op-ed written from the doll’s perspective.
“Today, truly anything is possible for a girl,” wrote a Mattel marketing rep assuming the voice of the classic plastic beauty. “Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes.” Setting aside the op-ed’s obnoxious you-go-girl tone, it’s true that for many women, including me, playing with Barbie as a young girl was a way to explore the kind of life we might want as an adult. My Barbie had a red sports car (she drove; Ken rode shotgun). She had a great wardrobe and a cool job as a journalist (no joke, she had a reporter’s notebook and a news desk). And she had a pretty hot sex life. It involved a lot of plastic dry-humping.
This is one of the rarely acknowledged benefits of a doll mostly singled out for her downsides: Barbie is a safe way for girls to explore dangerously adult concepts like sexuality. “Little girls are starting to understand their own sexuality but also what it means to be a grown woman, and Barbie is the perfect vehicle for that,” says Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and author of Your Daughter's Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. She likens young girls’ play-acting Barbie sex with them trying on their mothers’ makeup or bras. They’re trying to imagine what life is like for grown-ups.
Anti-Barbie arguments have a tired ring to them — even among feminists, we’re in backlash-to-the-backlash mode. There’s also some research to back up the claim that Barbie affects girls’ body image and their views on gender roles. Yet when I look back at my own Barbie-influenced youth, I have a hard time pointing to anything but positive effects. “The feminist perspective is she has this unattainable figure," McFadden says. "But Barbie was the only doll that had breasts, the only one to create a space where girls could start to fantasize about that.”
And fantasize we did. “My Barbie was a WHORE,” one friend told me. Another said her dolls “had the most active sex life ever. I rubbed their little flat fronts together almost every time I played.” Like the spectrum of adult sexuality, there was a lot of variety in Barbie’s sex life. “I definitely remember making them lay-down make-out,” said another friend. “I don't know if full sex was on my mind yet.” Just like real sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum (or in a perfectly posed photo on a magazine cover), it’s usually just one aspect of how girls are playing with Barbies. McFadden explains, “You have a little girl who’s starting to, step by step, day by day, grow into herself. The way that girls grow into themselves sexually is no different than the way they grow into themselves academically or creatively.”
Even little girls understand that adults view these things differently. While I had no qualms about zooming Barbie around in her sports car when my mom was in the room, I was quick to cover scenes of Barbie and Ken in flagrante delicto. Even then I sensed that sexuality was supposed to be off-limits to me. The dolls’ censored, flat pubic regions communicated that, too. There was a buffer between Barbie’s pseudo-sexual acts and the real world of adult sexuality. “Girls are not looking at Barbie as, ‘She’s unrealistically tall and skinny with big boobs,’" says a friend of mine who is the mother of a 6-year-old girl. "What Barbie represented to me as a young girl was imaginative play. I don’t think that’s a thing to shy away from.”
But the swimsuit issue touches a nerve because Barbie is sexualized by adults, not kids who haven’t even figured out what sexuality is yet. Whereas young girls are free to see their future selves in Barbie, putting her on the cover of a skin-heavy magazine urges men to, uh, see themselves in her, too. The swimsuit issue is explicitly about the adult male gaze, and the overlap between the adult world of overt sexuality and the child's world of implied and exploratory sexuality is unsettling. “One of the huge cultural problems we have is we don’t delineate between sexuality, which is normal and healthy and unfolds over the life cycles, and sexualization, or the hypersexualization of our girls,” McFadden says. “Barbie has come to represent both camps in a way.” (Or maybe she always did — the German doll that Barbie was based on was originally sold to adults.)
McFadden thinks the Sports Illustrated cover places Barbie squarely in the realm of adult male sexualization. “Maybe it’s creepy because it’s an incredibly incisive message,” she says. “And the message is you’re all dolls to us.” Demand for the Barbie featured on the Sports Illustrated cover is soaring. I hope that those dolls end up in the hands of creative, inquisitive little girls who feel free to explore every aspect of their aspirations for future womanhood, including their sexuality — aspirations that go far beyond swimsuit modeling.