I’m not proud of having used the television as a babysitter, but necessity is the mother, yada, yada, yada. Every afternoon when my kids were little, I would turn the TV to Channel 2, Boston’s PBS station, scheduling laundry folding and supper preparation around The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street. I rationalized that it was, after all, public television. How much harm could it do? It was both educational and commercial free.
Fast forward a few years. The kids are grown and gone, but the TV is still on. I’m not a rabid sports fan, but I do sit in the room with a book or my needlework when Joel watches games on TV – golf, baseball, football, whatever. When it comes to the Super Bowl, however, I do look up regularly to watch the commercials. This year, two Budweiser ads, one featuring horses and a puppy, the other a surprise parade for a returning soldier, pulled at my heartstrings. The Foot Locker commercial in which heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson returns Evander Holyfield’s ear and asks for forgiveness was a riot.
But I was somewhat taken aback to look up to see the Muppets advertising the Toyota Highlander, singing their “Ain’t no Room for Boring” routine. While I can certainly understand Toyota’s desire to use the cloth creatures to attract buyers, most of whom probably grew up with Sesame Street, I am disheartened that the beloved characters should have been drafted into this enterprise. Sure, Disney owns the Muppets now, and nobody could be more commercial than the company that spawned Mickey Mouse, but I am still disappointed. I guess I had hoped that the Muppets could have remained pristine and commercial-free, in one last frontier devoid of hucksterism.
And then, what should arrive in our mailbox recently? This year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. And, who is featured in it? Barbie! The favorite toy of millions of American girls for generations.
I am uncomfortable with these two scenarios and am trying to explain the discomfort to myself, so I put this out to you readers.
I’m certainly not against the great capitalist enterprise that supports the American economy. I understand that Barbie is a toy. Toy manufacturers have to make a living — as do we all — and they have many employees depending on them for their own security. And Mattel, Barbie’s maker, saw sales slide 13% in its most recent quarter – the all-important holiday season. So, it is understandable that they would want to explore all avenues to reignite interest in their famous/infamous plastic doll. And, as with the Muppets, Barbie was an important part of SI’s readers’ growing up years, so would trigger positive memories among them.
Yet, what was Mattel thinking when they decided that the SI swimsuit edition, the issue that exists to objectify near-naked women, would be an appropriate venue in which to display their signature product? My gut reaction was that Barbie’s appearance in this magazine smacks of child pornography. But then, she doesn’t look like a child.
Which then brings us to the argument that has raged over the doll for decades: Barbie is not a realistic model of an adult human female body, and she represents an unattainable “ideal” that warps little girls.
So, what am I so uncomfortable about? If Barbie had appeared as an athlete in an issue devoted to the Olympics, dressed in ski or luge wear, would I have felt the same? I don’t think so. Modeling positive social behavior – in this case, pursuit of the dream of excellence in sports – I can get behind, even if I personally have the athletic ability of a doorknob.
I’m curious as to how many young girls’ parents “reading” the magazine (“I only buy it for the articles”) saw any problem with this scenario.
Dear readers, please respond!
Nancy Kaplan says
There was a very cool item posted on Facebook last week showing a more realistic Barbie next to the usual one. The “real” Barbie was fantastic! I don’t know if someone actually made it or just photoshopped the original product to make it look more like a real person (albeit blonde), but I liked it a lot. PS – seeing that car ad with the Muppets gave me an unpleasant shock, too. But Disney owns the Muppet trademark now, right? What can you do?
Lorrin Krouss says
Disney is apparently making those Muppets earn their keep. No free lunch for Miss Piggy, Kermit and the gang. What was more disturbing then the Muppets in a car commercial was Michael Bolton singing from the top of a Honda all before and during Christmas. I had to keep shutting the TV off to make it go away. But Barbie on the cover of SI is no problem for me. Most little kids that play with Barbie do not read the swimsuit issue. Barbie’s unrealistic body is no worse then all the young female movie stars and entertainers who look as if they could slip down the shower drain if they aren’t careful. Those are the people that send out the wrong messages to young girls today — be skinny in order to be beautiful. But to be truthful, I always wished that I had Barbie’s waist and hips —— still do.
The Boston Globe this morning (3/14) has an interesting article reporting on research about Barbie and girls’ aspirations. It seems Mrs. Potato Head is a better role model.