Sports Illustrated Barbie

Although she’s typically characterized as a clothes horse and eyesore to women who want their daughters to grow up with a healthy body images, Barbie is quite the career woman, with more than 150 to her credit, according to Mattel’s SVP of marketing Lisa McKnight. But the iconic biology-defying doll adds another to her illustrious list of occupations on February 18 when she becomes the cover girl for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which turns 50 this year.

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Since she was first introduced in 1959, Barbie has courted controversy almost as long as she has her longtime boyfriend Ken, typically about whether or not she represents a positive or healthy role model for the young girls who comprise her target audience. Her hourglass figure in particular figure is often targeted for sending negative messages to female consumers about their own bodies.

Matching Mattel’s Barbie up with the 50th Anniversary Issue was something that came quite naturally to both companies, especially once their mutual promotional campaign, “Unapologetic,” became involved. In a statement released on Tuesday, Mattel discussed this promotional strategy and explained the “Unapologetic” notion as something that “gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic.” In essence, the decision offers a response to what the company may perceive as decades of public shaming over the character being “herself,” so to speak.

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But Sports Illustrated’s annual celebration of the female form has attracted its fair share of criticism as well, especially as it has pushed the boundaries of propriety with increasingly risque photographs of decreasingly substantial swimwear. Suffice it to say that teaming up with Barbie for the #Unapologetic campaign offers them a similar opportunity to champion the magazine as a platform for strong, empowered women to advance their careers — in effect, going from bathing suit beauty to career cutie. Supporters of the campaign have referenced previous cover girls like Kathy Ireland, Tyra Banks and Christie Brinkley as examples of women who made the journey from Swimsuit Illustrated darling to successful businesswoman.

Despite growing opposition from various online pundits and users of social media, Mattel has perhaps unsurprisingly stood by the Unapologetic campaign, arguing for the significance it holds for the future of Barbie and her market value. Although Barbie has accumulated some $3 billion worth of houses, dream cars and multi-ethnic iterations, with African-American, Hispanic and other versions of the character, the toy line dropped 13% in worldwide sales last year.

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Mattel’s argument for embracing oneself — even if you’re struggling with unimaginable wealth, success and beauty — is unquestionably worth exploring in an era when body identity and female empowerment is such a hot-button issue. But given that Mattel paid to have Barbie on the magazine’s cover, at the exact moment that the line is struggling to sustain sales, it remains to be seen whether the company’s rhetoric is sincere or just a good sales pitch.

Check out another magnet for controversy, Hooters, as the company assembles its annual calendar, only on FilmOn:

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