Women and their representation in media is a focus of numerous public discussions. More specifically, together with the movement for gender equality, the images of women in media that match stereotypical understanding of female attractiveness are often criticized for being sexist, as well as wrong from the point of view of women’s empowerment. The article Barbie: Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me by Mattel has received a lot of public attention, partly due to the relevance of issues that are highlighted here. Namely, according to the article, women whose physical appearance fits the socially accepted norms of beauty should continue appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated because these women, apart from just being beautiful, are not merely dolls, but individuals who have achieved success in other areas of life. Given the public debate around the respective topic, this text demands a critical analysis. Thus, this paper states the following research question: Do the ideas expressed in the article support women liberation movement?

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Although classical Marxism does not seem to discuss the problem of gender directly, because of its focus on oppression and inequality, it can also be applied in order to examine the above-mentioned issues. Through the lens of Marxism, women are in the position of subordination because of the oppression that men as a social group impose on women. Given that men have a better access to resources and have established control over the means of production, women use their resource of beauty as a result of their lack of access to other more important public resources. The problem is further reinforced by the fact that men create the so called ‘false consciousness’ (Sellnow83) that legitimizes these inequalities and creates a social attitude towards women as the social groups that should be beautiful, rather than educated, hard-working, or assertive. This also plays a big role in helping men to maintain their control over the resources of production. From this standpoint, Barbie: Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me is a cultural element through which the false consciousness is reinforced. It is possible to notice a high level of naturalization here as the article creates a perceived connection between women and their ‘natural’ ability of looking beautiful. In addition to this, the article does not give any empirical evidence to support its claims. More specifically, the author argues that women who appeared on the Sport Illustrated have broken many social norms and barriers, reached high achievements in business etc. Given that the author does not provide any numbers on the percentage of women featured in the magazine that indeed managed to achieve success outside of the area of beauty industry, this argument remains weak. The examination of ‘Sport Illustrated’ has shown that the overwhelming majority of women featured there have built their career based on their appearance. These women are models, actresses, beauty bloggers etc. It is thus logical to assume that it leads to young girls’ misconception that women should be beautiful in order to be successful, the exactly same misconception that men as a social group tries to reinforce.

In addition to this, from a Marxist perspective, reducing women to their physical appearance is also a means of controlling women. The high number of plastic surgeries and eating disorders are to be taken into account when discussing the effects of the image of Barbie. Regardless of the fact that in the article the image of Barbie is discussed as a motivator for many women, it is also important to take into account that Barbie affects women’s confidence and their level of self-esteem. Barbie shows an unrealistic image of a woman that is almost unattainable and is established in order to distract women from the fight for resources that would potentially give them a better access to power. The focus that false consciousness puts on the importance of being attractive for women distracts women from fighting for power resources that would potentially increase their status.

As to the possible implications of the text, it is important to note that regardless of the weakness of the arguments presented there, the audience might adopt that idea that building a career in the beauty industry is the only option for women. This option, however, excludes the possibility of the long-term success, given that the period of time when women are young is usually relatively short. In addition to this, as it has already been noted above, this resource does not give one access to power, if compared to the access to economic resources that men as a social group have. Yet, the text, being influenced by men’s hegemony, chooses to ignore these aspects. From this point of view, Barbie: Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me reinforces and legitimizes the oppression of women under the veil of objectivity and women liberation movement.

  • Sellnow, Deanna. “A Marxist Perspective.” The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture: A Marxist Perspective. N.p.: SAGE Publications, 2010. 71-88. Print.