You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie’

Mattel’s overhaul of its Barbie brand is the basis for an examination of the doll’s cultural impact in Andrea Nevins’ thought-provoking doc.

Andrea Nevins
Kim Culmone, Michelle Chidoni, Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, Peggy Orenstein.
Release Date:
Apr 27, 2018

1 hour 31 minutes

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.

Film Review: ‘Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie’

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival, New York (Spotlight Documentary), April 26, 2018. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Hulu release of a Rare Bird Films production. Producers: Cristan Crocker, Andrea Nevins.

Crew: Director, writer: Andrea Nevins. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Geoffrey Franklin. Editor: Azin Samari. Music: Craig Richey.

With: Kim Culmone, Michelle Chidoni, Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, Peggy Orenstein.

More Film

  • Les Arcs's Co-Production Village Kicks Off

    Les Arcs's Co-Production Village Kicks Off 10th Edition

    Marylise Dumont’s “Black Dog,” Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen’s “Ashes and Snow” and “Each of Us” are among the 20 projects which will be pitched at the 10th edition of Les Arcs Film Festival’s Co-Production Village. The Co-Production Village will run alongside the festival which will be presided by Ruben Ostlund, the Swedish helmer of Palme d’Or-winning [...]

  • Maria Alché Debut ‘A Family Submerged’

    Visit Films Sells Key Territories with Maria Alché Debut ‘A Family Submerged’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID —  New York’s Visit Films announced at Buenos Aires’ Ventana Sur market, that the company has secured distribution in Mexico and Spain on Maria Alché’s directorial debut, “A Family Submerged.” In Mexico, the film was snagged by top indie production and distribution company Interior 13 Cine, distributors for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Colombian [...]

  • Macao

    'Clean Up' Takes Top Prize at Macao Festival and Awards

    Korean drama movie, “Clean Up” took the best film prize on Friday night at the closing ceremony of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao. The jury, which comprised Chen Kaige, Danis Tanovic, Mabel Cheung, Paul Currie, and Tillotama Shome, said: “’Clean Up’ is a powerful, visceral film which is symbolic and naturalistic at the [...]

  • Breaking Glass Snags Prizewinning Argentine Gay

    Ventana Sur: Breaking Glass Snags Argentine Gay Drama ‘Marilyn’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    In a last-minute deal inked at Ventana Sur, Breaking Glass Pictures (BGP) snapped up North American rights to gay-trans drama “Marilyn,” the feature debut of Argentine helmer-scribe Martin Rodríguez Redondo. The Philadelphia-based company has been on a mini-buying spree, having previously snagged threesome drama “We Are Three” at the Buenos Aires confab. BGP has bought [...]

  • Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in

    Paramount Inks Deal for Theme Park in South Korea

    Paramount Pictures has announced a deal to install a studio-branded theme park in an entertainment resort being developed in South Korea. The agreement was struck between Paramount and Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, which owns the Inspire Integrated Entertainment Resort in the South Korean city of Incheon. Mohegan has invested KRW 2.8 trillion ($2.4 billion) in [...]

  • Arca, Cacerola, Viento del Norte, Panda

    Arca, Cacerola, Viento del Norte, Panda Team on ‘Mental Health Not Included’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — In a return to film production after serving as president of Argentina’s National Institute of Film and the Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) and then as a member of parliament, film producer Liliana Mazure is teaming with prestigious counterparts in Mexico and Brazil on a three-part, pan-regional dark comedy, “Mental Health Not Included.” Lead [...]

  • IFFAM and Variety Celebrate Asian Talent

    IFFAM and Variety Celebrate Asian Talent Up Next

    The International Film Festival and Awards Macao and Variety combined forces for the second year running to put a spotlight on Asia’s acting talent. A well-attended meet-the-stars press event on Friday afternoon in Macau was addressed by leading local official, Maria Helena Senna de Fernandes. She turned the microphone over the five actors from different [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content