If a man refers to a woman as his Barbie Doll, he may receive a slap or a hug. If a woman refers to another as a Barbie, the comment may be an insult. Since 1959 when Mattel, Inc. launched Barbie, never did her originators imagine how the doll might reflect social backlash against ongoing cultural stereotypes or attitudes about women. Nor did co-founder Ruth Handler imagine the doll’s 11.5 inch frame would have to shoulder women’s irate emotional reactions against Barbie’s fostering standards of beauty for women.
In the documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, writer/director Andrea Nivens investigates Barbie’s complex and fascinating history. She examines how Barbie’s ascribed cultural meaning has moved along various stages in an ever-changing feminist continuum. In an overview of the decades the filmmaker reveals through interviews how the doll represented conflicting cultural concepts related to women’s progress. On the one hand Barbie manifested a forward thinking prototype of women’s autonomy and independence. But the uber feminine, plastic object also represented those adjectival delimiters. She symbolized the worst example of brainwashed women’s oppression as a clueless, passive, superficial, retrograde, sex-toy woman, voiceless, and uncomplaining.
Notably, the writer/director lucidly and entertainingly examines Barbie’s controversial conundrums. To bolster these segments, Nivens uses seminal interview clips with feminist icon Gloria Steinem as well as social critics Roxane Gay and Peggy Orenstein. Importantly, she provides an insider’s look. She sits in on sessions at Mattel following how designers and engineers morph Barbie’s appearance to satisfy Barbie’s critics. Chief among them decry that Barbie does not mirror the diversity of women’s shapes, looks, ethnicities,and sizes. Finally, the filmmaker affirms the company’s mission to have its most popular toy always be consistent with social trends.
Since her launch in 1959 by Ruth Handler, the Barbie Doll has been an American phenomenon. Thus far, over 1 billion dolls have been sold in 150 countries around the world. However, Barbie’s flashpoints seem ever-present. For example, recently, in Saudi Arabia the doll has been banned for not representing Muslim ideals. In the last few years U.S. sales have plummeted because Barbie’s bad press burgeoned like weeds after a thunderstorm. Despite Barbie’s appearance changes, critics felt that the doll still pushed unrealistic body images and encouraged girls toward anorexia and thinspiration. After all, Barbie’s measurements are far from normal.
As Nivens explores Barbie’s maturation through interviews with Mattel’s Kim Culmone and Michelle Chidoni and cultural historians, she highlights Mattel’s policy to wisely upgrade Barbie’s appearance once more. All is done to maintain the doll’s popularity and the company’s profitability. With the most recent and acute storm of criticism, unlike anything the company has been through before, we follow Mattel’s design and roll out of new Barbies as the company flies into the hurricane and comes out on the other side. The filmmaker edits the sessions well. She focuses on the emotional angst of Kim Culmone, Michelle Chidoni, and others whose careers are on the line if the public doesn’t welcome the Barbie’s new and transformative appearances.
However, in Nivens’ set up of the history of the company, we realize the current resistance to Barbie hearkens back to the doll’s beginnings. Even at its inception, Barbie faced criticism. Contrary to the social wisdom of the late 1950s, Ruth Handler, sported a maverick view. She believed that girls should not only play with baby dolls changing diapers. Instead, she felt they needed to play with a doll which would encourage them to think outside the homemaker box. They needed to play-prepare for roles as independent women. Based on her own lifestyle, Handler thought girls should not aspire to only be mothers. Thus, she believed they, like men, should dream big and create their own identity apart from their husband’s. Barbie was one way they could prepare for this new world for women.
In this segment Nivens reveals how Handler discovered a doll in Germany (Bild Lilli) that would fulfill her conception. Handler hired an engineer to change Bild Lilli’s appearance. And she stipulated that the doll not be classically beautiful. The co-founder didn’t want to make the girls who would play with her feel inferior (in today’s social perspective an irony). So Barbie blossomed into a fashion model doll. Though Handler’s husband and the Board of Directors didn’t like the doll’s breasts and maturity, Handler persisted. She convinced the men she was right. And she was.
Thus, Barbie’s story began with a revolutionary idea from a maverick woman entrepreneur. Her vision and determination to stand up to men yielded a profitable company. It has thrived through peaks, valleys, and the latest waves of feminism. In her film Nivens underscores that Barbie’s tiny shoulders perhaps unfairly carry the symbolic aspirations of women and young girls. Girls seek to make meaning in their own lives as they play with Barbie. This notion Handler understood and developed into a successful company. Will adherence to Handler’s founding mission to stay ahead of the social curve and further influence young girl’s goals and passions continue as is has for sixty years? Perhaps. Meanwhile, Nivens raises intriguing questions in an enjoyable film that is historically and socially relevant. You will find the documentary on HULU.