“I’m grateful I didn’t grow up with Barbie.” – Gloria Steinem
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Gloria Steinem isn’t alone. Lisa Simpson hates Barbie. Feminist writer Roxanne Gay wishes Barbie had never been extruded. Barbie is the doll everyone loves to hate.
Like a lot of women, writer and director Andrea Nevins’ history with Barbie seems complicated. I understand. Blindfolded, in a pile of fabric, I could still pick out – by touch alone – my first Barbie’s evening gown. It was woven tight, stiff, and strapless. Its raised gold stripes, cut on the bias, felt rough.
I coveted Barbie’s wardrobe, her blonde hair, those perfect tits, her wasp waist, and perhaps worst of all, looking down, Barbie’s tiny shoes. Nevins’ documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie talks to women like me, who were disproportionately influenced by an 11 1/2-inch piece of plastic.
Even the doll’s worst detractors have to admit that Barbie isn’t all bad. My astronaut Barbie also walked “on the moon” in my sandbox. I had a teacher Barbie and a Barbie with a briefcase. In my nine-year-old brain, Barbie ruled the roost. Screw Ken – it was Barbie’s Dream House, Barbie’s Dream Car. Tiny Shoulders reinforced what I always knew: Barbie earned this stuff. She’s a working woman. Like the documentary says, “There’s no ‘Mom with Three Ungrateful Kids’ Barbie.”
With a blatant tip-of-the-hat to HBO’s Westworld, Tiny Shoulders opens with a 3D printer hard at work on the layer-by-layer construction of a white polymer Barbie. That’s followed by a little history and a three-act narrative that builds tension amid facts, insights, and opinions.
Nevins doesn’t gloss it over: Barbie comes with a lot of (pink) baggage.
It’s clear from some of the movie’s touching interviews that I am not the only woman out there who gets nostalgic when I smell soft vinyl.
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie acknowledges that feminism is a complicated space. This story of a team of (mostly) women trying to bring a classic toy into the twenty-first century gives us something to love, something to hate, but more than that, Tiny Shoulders offers something to think about when it comes to the formative influences of childhood.
Though Barbie is still the foundation of Mattel, in 2015, Richard Dickson, President and Chief Operating Officer of the toy manufacturer, admitted in front of cameras and shareholders, “The foundation of the business is cracked.… People say Barbie is vapid and materialistic.”
At Barbie headquarters, this was a hard thing to hear. To her team, Barbie is more than a toy. Barbie is their livelihood, and most of team grew up with her. Barbie is history – and she was long overdue for a change.
Not surprisingly, Barbie was, at the outset, a woman’s idea.
“I loved being a mother but I hated keeping house. Oh, shit, it was awful.” – Ruth Handler, inventor of Barbie
In the late 1950s, Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot, with their partner Harold Mattson, began their California toy company (where else) in their garage.
Ruth and Elliot’s daughter Barbara loved to play with paper dolls. When Ruth told her husband about her idea to replace their daughter’s flimsy paper cut-outs with a 3-D doll, her husband shot her down. A doll with breasts was “inappropriate.”
On a trip to Europe, the Handlers discovered an adult female doll called Bild Lilli. Modeled after a bawdy cartoon strip character, Bild Lili came with different outfits and a “come hither” expression. The Handlers found her in a liquor store. She didn’t look like a plaything for children.
Back in California, Ruth turned to former Raytheon engineer Jack Ryan to design her original concept, a more wholesome doll. Mattel called her “Barbie, Teenage Fashion Model.”
When Ruth’s “doll with breasts” met with a poor reception at the 1958 Toy Expo, Elliot turned to his wife and said, “I told you so.”
In 1959, the doll flew off the shelves. Mothers bought it for their daughters (the idea that boys might want to play with Barbie is never mentioned).
Nevins focuses the film, from that point forward, on the team who try to save Barbie’s plastic ass.
The story is engaging and well edited, splicing huge issues with intimate ones.
This isn’t the first time the toymaker has rethought Barbie. Her features have changed, her hair has changed, there have been tweaks to her mechanics. One of the most noticeable changes took place in 1971, when Barbie’s eyes, perpetually downcast, began to look straight ahead … into slowly slumping sales – though Mattel claims that somewhere in the world a Barbie is still sold every three seconds.
Mattel’s pride in introducing racially diverse Barbies was tempered when the dolls came under stinging criticism for encouraging “body shaming in all colors.”
“I am not a Barbie Doll!” – Chant outside Atlantic City, New Jersey beauty contest, 1968
Tiny Shoulders documents the pressure on real-life shoulders when the design team decides to “split the Barbie” into four iterations – Tall Barbie, Petite Barbie, Curvy Barbie, and Original Barbie.
There are logistic as well as social issues. Will Tall Barbie fit in her convertible? What about the furniture in Barbie’s townhouse? There are leg-motion issues for the thigh-gap reduction on Curvy Barbie. Will the new versions of Barbie be viewed as progress, an insult, or “too little, too late”?
Think what you will about Barbie, Tiny Shoulders does a fine job of increasing the tension around the 2016 release of the new dolls. Mattel has one shot to tell the story …and so does Andrea Nevins.
You’ll have to watch the documentary, released this week on Hulu, to find out the fate of Barbie. (Either that or go to your nearest Toys R Us … oh wait ….)
Barbie’s got big flaws. I’m mad at her for making me feel inadequate for my ordinary brown hair, my A-cups, and my size 10 feet. Her rampant consumerism is gross. But Barbie never stopped smiling, even when I pierced her all over with safety pins, colored her hair with a Marks-a-Lot, and made her into Prescient Goth Barbie in 1968.
Tiny Shoulders shows us how we project and reflect ourselves in the things we surround ourselves with, then we blame those things for who we are. Right or wrong, it’s the American way.
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All images are screenshots from the film.