I’m a Barbie girl. I don’t remember my first Barbie Doll, but I remember my favorite. 1989’s Ice Capades Barbie. I didn’t like ice-skating. But it didn’t matter. This doll was my favorite gateway to a million fantasies of what’d it’d be like to be a grown-up. Meaning she was like the Barbie of millions of little girls just like me around the world and across decades. As a young woman, I even used to take lone retreats to the grand and pink Barbie display at Times Squares’ Toys ‘R’ Us, which boasted a life-size two-story “dream house,” full of specialty dolls. Looking on these brightly colored boxes with their beaming beauties made me warmly nostalgic for playtime and its unlimited opportunities.
But as I’ve grown, I’ve seen how my privilege as a thin, white woman shaped my interaction with Barbie. My feminism has been questioned by those who loathe this busty blonde for all the controversies she’s sparked over gender roles, body issues, and beauty standards. I’ve come to understand how Barbie is a lot of things—good and bad—to a lot of people. And so I’m excited to tell you the new HULU doc, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, tackles many aspects of this often controversial figure, and her complicated history with feminism.
Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins (The Other F Word) follows Barbie through what might be her most important moment since her creation 57 years before. With frightfully falling sales, Mattel is faced with a crisis over what to do with Barbie. When Ruth Handler created this blonde bombshell in 1959, it was a time where baby dolls for girls were the norm. A doll with breasts was seen as a shockingly horrid concept by the men who dominated the toy industry. But Handler saw in her own daughter that girls longed to dream of who they’d be as grown-ups. So she created a daring doll who—like her creator—rejected the role of housewife, and instead pursued a career (or several hundred).
We all know Barbie became a huge success, and Tiny Shoulders swiftly summarizes this with news coverage that declares the doll as more famous than any president or royal. But as the ideas of womanhood shifted through feminist waves, Barbie went from progressive to problematic. Accessorizing with a scale and a book about weight loss, she reflected the culture’s focus on women staying thin. As the conversation about body positivity evolved, Barbie’s impossible measurements changed, but not enough according to a growing chorus of critics.
Interviews with renowned feminist writers like Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, and Andi Zeisler address the doll’s more troubling contributions to society, including a beauty standard that is fat-shaming and harmfully Eurocentric. And Tiny Shoulders does not shy away from the painful missteps Mattel has made in its marketing, including that scandalous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover in 2014. But the hero of this doc is the Barbie-lover who dared to see the doll’s flaws. Barbie’s Head of Design, Kim Culmone, spearheaded “Project Dawn,” the major redesign announced in early 2016 that introduced a Barbie line with four body types that included tall, petite, and curvy, and offered diversity in skin tones and hair texture.
For years, the public has been crying out for change. So why did what might seem like an inevitable move take so long? By taking us into the offices, homes, and corporate culture of the women behind Barbie’s making and marketing, Tiny Shoulders explores why this change was so hard to make, but also why it was so needed. Culmone is the heart of this story, sharing how she’s a plus-sized, queer feminist dedicated to reinventing the idea of Barbie. It’s a huge endeavor that not only includes a ton of logistics of design, but also the ongoing conversations about what these dolls will say to the children who play with them.
Culmone faces dizzying obstacles, including push-back from a fretful PR rep, fears over backlash, and testing of the toys that has little girls scoffing at “fat Barbie.” We watch in comfort knowing that the launch was a huge success. Yet Nevins churns an exhilarating suspense ahead of the announcement by focusing on the emotions of the female designers, execs, marketers who dedicated late nights and long hours talking over thigh gaps, feminism, playability and much much more in manifesting this new dawn. Together, they circled a conference table in their “war room,” hunched over laptops, nervously waiting to see how the news would be taken. And when they cheer and cry with joy, I did too.
Tiny Shoulders does not suggest even this is the end of the Barbie conversation. Presenting the new dolls to the aforementioned feminist critics, the reactions leaned positive, but were mixed with Gay remarking that she wants a proper “fat Barbie.” But this peek into the inner workings of Mattel shows it’s all a process. Barbie has always been about re-invention, whether that meant changing the cast of her eyes from downturn to straight ahead, changing careers from teacher to doctor to president, or finally beginning to reflect the wide world that’s long embraced her. She’s not always ahead of the curve. But her journey is not over. Tiny Shoulders deftly shows what a fascinating and important journey it’s been.
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will be available on Hulu on April 27.