The cultural conversation surrounding Barbie, Mattel’s ubiquitous and influential best-selling doll, has always been a contentious one, and it became even thornier in 2016 when the company gave its flagship brand a risky makeover. “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” charts that project from inception to launch, along the way providing a history lesson on not only the doll’s evolution but also, more fascinatingly, on the way the product has reflected, and in turn shaped, the zeitgeist. Those on both sides of the debate should find Andrea Nevins’ documentary illuminating and thought-provoking when, following its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, it debuts exclusively on Hulu.
From the moment it landed on — and promptly flew off of — store shelves in 1959, Barbie has been a phenomenon and, because of that popularity, a lightning rod. Is she an empowering toy that encourages girls to dream big and, in doing so, helps them define their feminist identities? Or is she the embodiment of an unrealistic, and thus harmful, vapid sexist ideal, making women of all ages feel bad about themselves and their bodies?
Nevins’ documentary suggests that the answer to both questions is yes, because Barbie’s appeal comes from both her fantasyland beauty as well as her various independent-woman professional guises (be it astronaut or flight attendant). Speaking with a number of authors and academics (including Gloria Steinem, whose every comment sounds laced with antipathy for the doll and the harm she feels it’s caused), “Tiny Shoulders” captures, per its title, the immense burden Barbie has had to bear as the nexus for all sorts of prickly debates — about body-shaming, stereotyping and workplace/domestic roles — that, to this day, have yet to be fully resolved.
With sales down in 2014, it falls to head of design Kim Culmone to devise a new 21st-century path forward for the iconic blonde. Culmone’s eventual plan involves completely rewriting the brand by launching three physically dissimilar Barbies (Petite, Tall and Curvy), which she hopes will let the doll better reflect society as a whole. Just as daunting as Culmone’s attempts to make those redesigned Barbies progressive and profitable, PR chief Michelle Chidoni is then tasked with selling the concept to the world — a monumental undertaking because, to some extent, it inherently means admitting that the original Barbie was, in some crucial way, problematic.
In glimpses of Culmone and Chidoni’s home life — the former with her wife, the latter with her 2-year-old daughter — “Tiny Shoulders” reveals that this radical operation is being driven by the very types of smart, diverse, modern women it hopes to inspire kids to become via the new dolls. Consequently, Nevins’ film posits Culmone and Chidoni as the spiritual heirs to the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler, a fiercely independent woman who thrived in a male-dominated business environment. Still, the director eschews hagiography, directly confronting the complications and contradictions of Mattel’s endeavor. Whether Barbie is capable of being everything to everyone while remaining desirable to young consumers, many of whom undoubtedly like her precisely because she’s unrealistic, proves a central issue that’s addressed with a lucidity and frankness, free of moralizing.
Proficient on all technical fronts, the doc embraces the fundamental allure of its subject even as it dissects Barbie’s role in molding, for better and worse, American concepts of female attractiveness, ambition and self-worth. And ultimately, it suggests that perhaps there isn’t one definitive conclusion to be had about the doll: Like her new line, Barbie’s impact continues to come in a variety of shapes and sizes.