As the Eberhart family finishes packing the contents of their Manhattan apartment in the opening scenes of the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, a man carrying a naked female mannequin passes by. “Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady!” reports the young daughter. “Well, that’s why we’re moving to Stepford,” her father replies.
The irony is delicious: while his remark seems to indicate his disgust (“We’re getting out of this evil city with its naked plastic women!”) it in fact portends his hope for the move to Stepford, where he’ll be surrounded by women who are literally plastic and utterly compliant.
Barbie, the iconic plastic doll, is appearing on cover wraps of 1,000 copies of this year’s Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and also in a four-page advertising spread photographed by Walter Iooss, Jr., who has been shooting the Swimsuit Issue for 40 of its 50 years. A limited edition Swimsuit Issue Barbie will also be available exclusively at Target, dressed in a suit inspired by the black-and-white striped swimsuit Barbie wore at her first appearance at the New York Toy Fair in 1959.
I believe there’s more than a taste of some Stepford irony here.
The first Swimsuit Issue cover model, Babette March, wore a bikini that’s shockingly modest by today’s standards, and while she’s tall, thin, and tanned, she’s got some healthy curves. Even more significant is how she’s posed: standing in the water, hair wet, smiling at something off to her right — not staring into the camera, not holding up tousled handfuls of hair, not offering her breasts or hips or rear end to the viewer. She looks like a woman having fun at the beach instead of a woman preparing to do a striptease.
In contrast, the cover models on this year’s 50th anniversary edition of the Swimsuit Issue — topless, smiling seductively, and arching their hind quarters toward the camera — look as plastic and willing as Stepford wives. The issue has been moving in a distinctly less-human, more sex-doll direction for a while now. As Lucia Peters observes in a post for Bustle, the models on the 1994 cover, for example
“[are] comparatively fuller […] their bodies have the creases and variations in skin tone that actual, non-plasticine human bodies do, reflecting a time when Photoshop didn’t run rampant. They look like distinct human beings […] and they are facing the camera in a poised manner rather than pornily draped across each other.”
It’s really not much of a stretch to include Barbie with the rest of the bathing beauties. Magazine covers don’t depict women with thighs that touch, body hair, or any visible creases, puckers, folds, wrinkles, or any other of the features that generally distinguish human beings from mannequins. In a YouTube clip, Iooss praised Barbie as “the best model I’ve ever worked with,” because she “takes instructions almost silently.” He’s clearly jesting, but the remarks are uncomfortably telling: it’s just so much easier to make your model look like a plastic sex doll when your model is, in fact, a plastic sex doll.
(That’s not hyperbole — the original Barbie doll was in fact based upon a German doll, Lilli, which Barbie creator Ruth Handler spotted on a trip to Europe. It became a children’s toy only after being originally marketed to adult men in bars and smoke shops as gag gifts; Lilli was based on a comic strip secretary who unapologetically sought after rich men — “I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn’t!”)
Criticism of Barbie and of the Swimsuit Issue as unrealistic, objectifying, and generally harmful to women and girls is nothing new, but Barbie’s recent reclamation of her ancestral roots as a sex object has initiated waves of Internet indignation, with every outlet from The New York Times to Fox Sports (and dozens of sites in between) weighing in. And it’s hard not to think that’s really the point of it all: Harry Bruinius and others have noted that Barbie doll sales in the crucial fourth quarter of 2013 were down 13% from the end of the previous year. How better to get everyone talking and thinking about Barbie again than to introduce a little controversy, or better, yet, frame Barbie’s appearance as cover girl as a feminist “accomplishment”?
Indeed, the irony crowning all the ironies is that Mattel and SI are attempting to present notable Swimsuit Issue models — along with Barbie — as classic American icons of female empowerment by claiming that they’re “#unapologetic.” A spokeswoman for Mattel told Ad Age that “unapologetic is a rally cry to embrace who you are and to never have to apologize for it.” Of course, it’s so much easier to embrace you are and not apologize for it when “who you are” is a sexy plastic doll that conforms to unrealistic standards of beauty. Or if you’re a human being who, in addition to having won the genetic lottery, has been digitally altered to look very much like a sexy plastic doll.
For over a decade now, studies have confirmed that idealized and unrealistic images of women’s bodies tend to lower self-esteem and exacerbate problems with body image and eating disorders in women and girls. Other studies have demonstrated that repeated exposure to such images (specifically pornographic images) contribute to sexual dissatisfaction in both men and women: in women, because they feel they can’t live up to the standards set by magazines; in men, because their partners don’t look like Barbie.
It’s sometimes objected that Americans are too “puritanical” about sex and about bodies; the assumption is that religion is responsible for whatever hang-ups some of us may have about girlie mags. But it seems we’ve reached a place where the issue with the Swimsuit Issue — and with Barbie — is less about religion and sexual mores and more about what it means to be assertive flesh and blood instead of compliant pixels and plastic.