Barbie! Model, Astronaut, Mermaid, President. The blonde-tressed plastic doll with the tiny waist and golden-white skin simultaneously conjures images of freedom and oppression, beauty tyranny and career-girl freedom. In the new Hulu documentary, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie,” writer/director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, and producer, Cristan Crocker, examine the feminism possible in the story of Barbie.
A Pisces born in the Year of the Pig, Barbie turns 60 next year. Dreamy and sincere, Barbie’s always done her best, a perfect Pisces Pig. Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful! I know I don’t, and I look nothing like her. But I did identify with Roxanne Gay, whose presence in the documentary thrilled me, as did comments by Gloria Steinem, Peggy Orenstein, and all the women who thoughtfully considered the implications of the 11.5″ tall doll with the impossible breast/waist/hip ratio. The doll began in Germany as a sexy toy named Lilli purchased mainly by grown men. Under entrepreneur Ruth Handler’s vision, the doll evolved in America into Barbie, named after her own daughter.
As a mom during the 1950s, Handler noticed dolls for girls encouraged child-raising. Dolls were pretend babies. She envisioned dolls that looked like women–grown-ups with breasts, three-dimensional versions of paper dolls–and wanted girls to play with dolls that showed possibilities outside of motherhood.
Similarly, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” shows the possibilities of the doll. Although Barbie is a constant visual indictment to most of us (Roxanne and me, for example), Barbie represents the idea that a girl can grow into a woman with a career, her own car, her own home, her own friends. As the documentary points out, the Ken doll seems like one of her many accessories, not the sole purpose of her life. Barbie’s neverending consumerism (clothes, clothes, and more clothes, plus those shoes, purses, cars, and mansions) risks subsuming her potential radicalism into shopping. “Tiny Shoulders” does not shirk from that observation, offering a solution when Steinem reminds us that our vote and our dollar make the difference.
The equipoise of the documentary extends to its interviewees, too. The sensitivity of the calming sea, sky, and bird scene after an emotion-filled interview with M.G. Lord allows the viewer to process the sadness of M.G.’s story by providing visual and real-time space in the documentary, respectful of Lord’s own story, and our own reactions.
The clean and colorful cinematography of the documentary offers historical overview as well as contemporary drama; the launch of a refigured Barbie (curvier! shorter! darker! taller! blue hair!) creates narrative tension that much of the preview audience loved. (I thought it lagged, but nevermind, the documentary is otherwise perfect). I adored hearing excerpts from John Berger’s book, “Ways of Seeing,” which makes clear how patriarchy colonizes girls and women by equating self-worth with physical desirability to boys and men.
Archival footage and pictures along with the actual rendering of the doll then and now–in the factories and in the hands who paint the dolls’ faces–mesmerize. I was fascinated to learn about the changes to Barbie’s face and body. For example, her downcast and sexily slanted eyes changed to open wide with blue-eyed happy assertion in 1971, and the next year Barbie sales dropped. In addition, Second Wave feminism critiqued Barbie for her pale and narrow standard of beauty.
Is feminist activism too much to put on the tiny shoulders of a doll? I’m not so sure about that. It’s a woman who developed the doll, and it’s a woman who ran the company during its most successful years. It’s women who compose much of the company now, and it’s women who made this documentary. Barbie is the doll who made toy manufacturer, Mattel, mega. I’m not giving up on Barbie. Yet.
Tiny Shoulders premieres on HULU December 27, 2018.