Someone at Sports Illustrated (SI) has a doll fetish. Is there any other explanation?

For the 50th anniversary of the swimsuit issue, SI is plastering a swimsuit-clad Barbie doll on its cover.

What does Barbie represent? Who identifies with Barbie dolls? For whom is the Barbie doll an icon of the highest aspirations of appearance and success?

Little girls.

Mattel and SI are essentially telling little girls that they ought to resemble the skimpy, airbrushed models featured in the pages of the swimsuit issue. The whole thing is creepier than your friend’s stepdad adding you on Myspace. But it’s also dangerous.

Airbrushed depictions of women’s bodies set unattainable goals for women and unrealistic expectations for men, all while perpetuating an ugly heteronormative paradigm. This often leads to unhealthy body images with dangerous effects, such as eating disorders. Women, and sometimes men, will strive for that unattainable, flawless bodily perfection they see idealized on screen and in print.

But these models are fake; as one of my friends is fond of saying, airbrushed models are silly because if you didn’t have pores, you’d die.

The SI swimsuit issue tells women how they ought to look and consequently, how they ought to feel about themselves for not looking that way. You don’t need to be a women, gender and sexuality studies major to recognize these cultural forces at play.

Barbie dolls operate in similar ways for young girls. Barbie’s unrealistic body, flawless appearance and never-ending assortment of accessories set up unrealistic and dangerous expectations for young girls about how their bodies should look. That’s partially why Barbies are more dangerous than they seem, to say nothing of the associations Barbie’s whiteness draws between race and beauty.

The people at Mattel, the toy company that manufactures the Barbies, see it differently though. Barbie’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated is part of Mattel’s new “unapologetic” campaign, meant to rehabilitate Barbie’s image.

Why should Barbie be made to feel bad for her long legs, unmatchable beauty, anatomically impossible breast-to-waist ratio and dermatologically unachievable appearance? “I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me,” you can imagine this new Barbie saying, “but I can’t help it that I’m so popular,” a la Gretchen Wieners.

A blog post on the site hit the nail on the head with its title: “The Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Will Feature Barbie, So Your Daughter Can Feel Bad Too.”

Juxtaposing Barbie with the sexy, skimpy and bodacious models is unsettling. Is this where we are now? Are mainstream elements of culture really turning little girls into sex objects? So it’s not just women who are meant to feel shame for not looking the way airbrushed supermodels appear in the pages of SI, but little girls too.

Courtney Martin, blogging for The New York Times, thinks there’s something refreshingly honest about SI having used a literal plastic doll to replace live women. “In a world riddled with empty gestures at gender equality,” she writes, “it’s so simple, so straightforward — this issue of Sports Illustrated is entirely about the objectification of the female form.”

I don’t think anyone will be shocked that SI isn’t going to win feminist publication of the year. But, strangely enough, there are those who argue that the SI swimsuit issue is something feminists ought to embrace. The swimsuit issue, they argue, shows these women as more than a pretty face by featuring their athletic talents.

I strongly disagree.

Anyone who reads the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as pro-feminist either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen the way heterosexual men interact with it. The issue is about boobs, butts and naked girls in exotic places. It’s more like Penthouse for your everyday hormonal 16-year-old NBA fan. Now SI is sexualizing a toy role model for little girls. On the cover. Unapologetically.