Toward the end of Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, a documentary premiering this Friday on Hulu, we see a team of Mattel marketing and design executives anxiously refresh their browsers on identical Mac laptops, waiting for the publication of a Time cover story on a diverse new line of Barbie dolls — it includes petite, tall, and curvy figures, as well as a variety of skin tones and hair textures. The execs let out a triumphant whoop when they finally read the cover line: “Now can we stop talking about my body?”
It’s an ironic question for what turned out to be a story about Barbie’s body — but the same could be said for Tiny Shoulders, an inside look at Mattel’s struggle in recent years to adapt its flagship product to a changing world, one in which “Barbie” has come to seem shorthand for a vapid, overly made-up woman. (“Math class is tough!” Teen Talk Barbie squawked in 1992.) Directed and produced by Andrea Nevins, the documentary asks viewers to sympathize with the folks at Mattel — judging by the film, mostly women — who are tasked with the challenge of transforming this symbol of constricting female beauty standards into one of diversity and empowerment.
They’re not the first women to hike this mountain. As the informative first half of Tiny Shoulders explains, Barbie was the brainchild of an empowered woman, Ruth Handler, who founded Mattel in postwar California with her husband, Elliot. (“Mattel” is a portmanteau of Elliot and Harold “Matt” Matson, who designed dollhouse furniture for the company; Ruth handled the business side, but, wouldn’t you know it, her name didn’t make the cut.) Ruth Handler describes herself as an ambitious woman who loved being a mother but hated staying at home, and she’s interviewed in the film alongside feminist thinkers Gloria Steinem, Andi Zeisler, Peggy Orenstein, and Roxane Gay; she says that she was inspired to create Barbie after watching her young daughter and her friends playing with paper dolls — enacting, she realized, their future adult lives.
Still, Barbie was a hard sell at first. Unsurprisingly, this was because of her body. The toy’s origin story explains why Barbie is such a bombshell, with that impossibly tiny waist holding up her disproportionately large breasts: The prototype for the original Barbie was a German doll called Bild Lilli that was based on a cartoon strip character and, as one talking head notes, was most definitely not marketed to children. While dreamed up by a woman, Mattel’s version was, of course, engineered by a man, and Barbie’s slammin’ bod was a point of contention from the start. Up until then, dolls were not representations of adult women, but of babies, which offered little girls the chance to practice those all-important nurturing skills. When the Handlers brought Barbie to a toy fair in 1959, potential buyers — again, all men — worried that women wouldn’t purchase for their daughters a doll with breasts. It’s as if these men were finally compelled to imagine a woman or girl looking at this distorted, male-fantasy version of ideal womanhood — and lo, it was weird. These initial qualms about Barbie’s figure are, in a way, the seeds of Mattel’s contemporary struggles.
As this brief summary of Tiny Shoulders illustrates, this particular doll has never been just a toy. Nevins zeroes in on two current Mattel employees, Kim Culmone, Barbie’s head of design, and Michelle Chidoni, head of marketing, as she tracks the company’s efforts to launch the new line of dolls. Culmone, who led the push to include a wider variety of body types and ethnicities among Barbie dolls, describes growing up as an only child and delighting in her then-notably undiverse Barbies. When Nevins follows Culmone to her sunny West Hollywood apartment, the director lingers on her subject’s feminist bona fides — a stack of books by authors like Steinem and Eileen Myles, an artful nude painting on the wall, a sticker declaring “the future is female” on the hood of her laptop. Culmone calls Project Dawn — the code name given to Barbie’s redesign — the most culturally significant thing she’s taken part in since she married her wife in San Francisco in 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state laws.
Culmone says Barbie’s unrealistic body has been a controversial topic during her entire seventeen-year tenure at Mattel, and she is determined to change that conversation by designing dolls that better reflect the bodies of real women like herself. Chidoni, on the other hand, is reluctant to wade into the conversation at all, lest the company imply there’s anything wrong with Barbie’s body in the first place. “Basically I am Barbie’s publicist,” Chidoni explains to the cameras. It’s her job to defend the brand, which in effect means defending a retrograde symbol of femininity that, according to that Time article, 92 percent of American girls aged three to twelve have owned.
All this raises thought-provoking questions about gender roles and body image in America — do these dolls simply represent what society wants and expects of women, or do they play a more active role in shaping those expectations than Mattel’s spokespeople might like to admit? Or do the cartoonishly lifelike dolls and their suite of accessories simply afford girls a world to get lost in — a chance for the kind of exploratory play that often comes baked into entertainment aimed at boys, from model trains to Lincoln Logs to Legos?
But by two-thirds in, Tiny Shoulders starts to feel like a publicity exercise for the brand — an attempt to humanize the company by showing us the real women behind all that plastic. Nevins wrings some suspense from executives’ anxiety over the relaunch, their sense of responsibility for this monumental product. We see Culmone greet her wife as she comes home, and Chidoni playing with her toddler before heading off to work. But none of this endeared Barbie to me any more than she already is (I’ll admit I played the shit out of those dolls when I was a kid); instead, it made me wonder what kind of spacious L.A. home I might be able to afford if I did Barbie’s PR.
At the end, the filmmakers present the redesigned dolls — in particular “curvy Barbie,” whose stomach and thighs swell ever so slightly — to skeptical talking heads like Steinem and Gay, a moment that feels like an ambush, a stunt — as if the whole film were leading up to this moment of redemption when even Roxane Gay, who chuckles at the still-narrow waist of curvy Barbie, has to admit this is progress.
At one point, Culmone insists she doesn’t want to see Barbie as a museum object; she doesn’t want her to become “history.” It’s an interesting remark, considering the film’s historical viewpoint: Nevins includes archival footage from the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City and demonstrations in which sign-waving women chant, “I am not a Barbie doll.” Of course, Tiny Shoulders filters its feminist history lesson through the figure of Barbie — the point is to show how this toy has reflected the changing times.
But the documentary doesn’t quite follow through on that mission. Nevins may turn a critical eye on the Mattel of past decades, but she’s careful not to alienate her present-day subjects. So the film doesn’t venture too deep into current beauty standards, which dictate that a woman can now have a big ass in addition to big tits so long as her waist is still small enough that King Kong could easily wrap a paw around it. In the end, when the new dolls are positively received on social media, Culmone declares victory, noting that when people say, “She’s such a Barbie,” it will no longer mean what it used to. Maybe that is the most appropriate statement the film could make about current feminist discourse, even if it’s not quite the one Nevins intended: that Culmone’s conquest is a victory not so much for women and girls, but for the brand.
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie premieres Friday on Hulu.
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.