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Should Barbie really be the latest Sports Illustrated model?

For its 50th anniversary cover, Sports Illustrated magazine has done away with the usual model altogether and replaced her with Barbie.

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After decades of criticism for making women look like Barbies, Sports Illustrated has taken a stand.

For its 50th anniversary cover, the magazine has done away with the usual buxom model altogether and replaced her with – cue the outrage – a buxom Barbie doll.

No one can accuse Sports Illustrated of being inconsistent. After all, why portray women as sentient beings if that's not how you see them?

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The magazine gets points for honesty, too – the campaign's official theme is "Unapologetic," the New York Times reported.

But that's where the kudos end. Instead of contenting themselves with their hashtag-grabbing slogan, the marketing execs who dreamed up the stunt had the gall to make references to women's body-image issues – and to portray the swimsuit edition as a form of empowerment. For Barbie.

"As a legend herself, and under constant criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in" the special issue "gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic," Mattel said in a statement.

Mattel reportedly paid Sports Illustrated to land Barbie on the cover, in a bid to revive a sagging brand.

Sales of Barbie fell 13 per cent in the holiday season, compared with the same period the previous year, the New York Times reported. "The reality is, we just didn't sell enough Barbie dolls," Bryan G. Stockton, chief executive, is quoted as saying.

But that's no excuse for insulting the intelligence of those who can spot a desperate marketing ploy a mile away.

Positioning a girl's toy in a magazine designed for men to ogle women is "insulting" and "wrong," writes Eve Vawter at Mommyish.com.

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Most girls who play with Barbies know the difference between a plastic toy and the standards of beauty that many women feel pressured to achieve, she said. But when Barbie is photographed alongside real-life women in a swimsuit issue, "Barbie is no longer just a doll. She is a sex doll," Vawter writes. "Think about that the next time your daughter wants one in the toy aisle."

Mommyish readers agreed. "I love Barbie and I still think it's totally creepy a kid's toy is being sexualized in a men's magazine," commented Maria Guido.

But if the magazine spread is off-putting, the "making of" video is over-the-top repulsive.

"I've been waiting for this day with Barbie," drawls long-time Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. in the video. "She's hot, Barbie's hot," he says. "She takes instructions almost silently."

With PR like this, it's impossible to dismiss the campaign as clever parody, along the lines of Danish-Norwegian band Aqua's 1990s hit song Barbie girl.

Clearly, as a role model for girls, Barbie is well past her prime.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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