Friday, March 14, 2014

Barbie Dolls Up Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover in Time for Women's History Month

When I saw the news that Barbie would be on this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit magazine cover, and that it wasn't a joke, my brain short circuited with the absurdity of it, to the point where I could barely put words to my feelings. Thankfully, Stephen Colbert's comedy articulates the many, many things that are wrong with having a children's toy (marketed to girls) on the cover of a mainstream sports magazine's annual portfolio of barely clothed women models in seductive poses (marketed to men and boys).
"The swimsuit issue has always been a bastion of Civil Rights, from the occasional Black model to that one girl who was under 5'10""
Of course, he does it by satirically praising the move from a sexist, hetero-normative point a view that sharpens the clarity on how harmful and insidious this use of Barbie may be (as well as the worldview that justifies and condones it). I like the idea of using this humorous introduction to the issue with high school or college media studies students because it predicts and disarms many of the sexist rationales for justifying Barbie's appearance on the SI swimsuit issue cover.
"Empowerment. Because there's nothing more empowering to a model than being replaced by a piece of plastic... In some ways she's the perfect model...She doesn't blink. She doesn't move. She's too busy being empowered to talk."
I think it's especially challenging to get people to share and develop their opinions in dialogue across genders, sexualities, and interest groups with issues like this. But making your learning space safe for debate and growth is well worth the risks, trials and errors. Maybe a satirical frame can help. Some ideas for using this clip after the jump.

"It's the exact opposite of the objectification of women. It's the womafication of object."
You could jump right in with the analyzing the clip for Colbert's messages, how the humor works, and a list of the critiques and rationales for Barbie's appearance in SI swimsuit issue. Or you could start with Barbie's own perspective (actually the Mattel/SI marketing perspective) that appeared in a full page New York Times ad (read it unabridged, without comment here at a Barbie Collectors site). [This ad is an amazing piece for analysis in itself--see if your group can pick up the persuasion techniques positioning being "gorgeous" and "wearing pink" as threatened minority traits. Amazing.]

I usually prefer to start with what students know and feel about an issue, trying to make it a safe place to share and exchange views. I recommend activating or accessing some knowledge about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. So, talk about what students know and need to know (facts about target audience, readership, history, political economy--send them on searches or have the info handy yourself to expedite). Ask: How do you feel about the swimsuit issue? What's its purpose? How might different people feel differently about it? What might be problematic about the swimsuit issue? Share common critiques about constructing women's body image ideals (of unlikely/impossible proportions), male heterosexual desire, the male gaze objectifying women, etc. Include some discussion of the marketing perspective and the audience/fan view--how might different people feel differently about the issue? You could do the same for Barbie dolls. Then, open up the floor for talking about Barbie on the cover of the 50th anniversary Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and analyze the Colbert clip.
Satirical pundit opinion from the Onion.
The Onion has a page of a satirical "opinions" on this news item, which could be a challenging way for students to create responses from a range of characters to express how different people might understand Barbie's appearance differently (could be funny or straight up). This could be done in any medium from a classroom blackboard to Twitter, and it gives students a chance to play with satire and identity positions.

I'd also try to figure out ways that we could put our opinions on this topic into action--from posting opinions to comment threads in online forums, to writing op-eds, and engaging in consumer activism efforts (e.g., there's been pressure on the Girl Scouts to break ties with Barbie/Mattel over the issue). I'd love to hear ideas for action in response to the issue in your comments.

I've been looking for some women comedians' take on Barbie on the SI cover, but I haven't found anything yet. Have you seen any funny women take on this craziness?

So, I obviously favor privileging students' views, interpretations, and genuine dialog, but that gets problematic when addressing discriminatory and potentially harmful media messages. While trying to empower student voice, I also feel a responsibility to represent the view of our learning community, and sometimes my personal view, as part of the conversation. But I strive to call attention to the fact that I am doing so, and that I am exercising power (as the teacher) when I do it. For example, at some point, I would call attention to the fact that I chose to share the Colbert clip because it makes fun of the justifications for Barbie in SI swimsuit, which I feel are offensive and harmful. In discussions of issues like this, learners are likely to repeat and reinforce dominant norms in discourse that marginalize others in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and other aspects of identity. I always intervene when I hear a student using language that may hurt other students or make our learning space feel unsafe, and I encourage students to let me know when they feel such things are happening, during or outside of our meetings. Students have a right to disagree, resist and oppose my views or anyone else's, but I have a responsibility to ensure safety and a constructive learning environment. Using humor can ease the tension around these issues, but it also can blur the lines around respectful dialog in a learning environment. I like to walk that tightrope, in part because it helps make issues of power more transparent in the classroom as well as in media and culture. I'd love to hear how you deal with these issues as well as your responses to the Colbert clip.

"The Swimsuit issue has always been a bastion of Civil Rights from the occasional Black model, to that one girl who was under 5'10."

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