Film Reviews

Review: ‘Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie’

Hot Docs 2018


Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie
(USA, 90 minutes)
Dir: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

An involving doc operating on various levels, Tiny Shoulders reveals surprising facts about one of the most recognized women in the world. She’s not a flesh and blood woman, but according to Nevins’s film, 98% of the people in the world know who Barbie is.

The movie begins with the doll’s origin story, which at least partially counters the anti-Barbie tirades of feminists like Gloria Steinem, who says in the film, “I am so grateful I didn’t grow up with Barbie. Barbie is everything we didn’t want to be, and were told to be.”

Since her creation in the 1950s, Barbie has been tagged as the embodiment of sexist ideals of Caucasian womanhood. “Barbie” entered the language as meaning stereotypically, cutely superficial with a certain well-proportioned body type. If a girl is chubby, unusual looking, black or Asian, her failure to match the ideal makes her miserable. “The world loves to hate us,” says one of the Mattel Toy executives we meet in the doc.

The Barbie doll was actually part of a toy revolution when she was imagined by Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel toys with her husband Eliot. The doc tracks how Handler, “a steely, ambitious woman” who loathed being a housewife observed her daughter playing with boring paper dolls and flashed on the idea of creating a 3-dimensional cutie, which girls would love.

Everybody, including Eliot, hated the concept. Who would buy a female doll with an adult body that included breasts? Dolls were babies that taught nurturing, how to be a mama. Handler imagined a toy that taught girls about their own bodies, and eventually allowed them to explore who they were, and what they wanted to be. Barbie became a career woman and even an astronaut. As far as I know, there’s never been a feminist social critic Barbie.

On a European trip, Handler discovered Bild Lili, a doll with a woman’s body that for some reason appealed to grown men and was not designed for female children. Back in the US, following more struggles with male powers-that-be, Handler launched Barbie, who was modelled after Lili and designed by Jack Ryan, the missile engineer who worked on the Sparrow and the Hawk. The rest is history. Since her birth in 1959, Barbie has earned billions for Mattel.

Cut to 2016. Sales and Mattel stocks had dropped. Barbie was now “missing relevance,” laments an executive. For much of Tiny Shoulders, we are in Barbie headquarters as execs and designers strive to re-invent the doll. It’s a crisis. How does Mattel make people “care about Barbie?” We are let in on strategizing about body types, skin tones, and ethnicities. There had already been Black Barbies, but now the goal was more realism, more diversity.

Meeting in large groups, the strategists discuss various behinds, foot sizes, and body types. Is she “curvy” enough, or too “curvy,” the code word for plump? In test groups, kids playing with prototype dolls complain loudly that they’re FAT. Apparently, if, for example, Barbie gets taller, the “system of play” changes.

Nevins takes a shot at getting you caught up in whether or not “Project Dawn,” the launch of Barbie’s new incarnation, will play out. Will potential customers be “culturally comfortable” with “curvy,” the Mattel people, seized by anxiety, wonder.

As the marketing scenes begin to drag a little, and the score seems more soporific, I was wondering whether this noble enterprise was Quixotic. Maybe the doll’s drop in popularity had less to do with the lack of a hijab-wearing version than the fact that many girls love Play Station and other gaming platforms. And maybe for some kids, Barbie is too connected to reality, and they prefer pure fantasy toys like Disney’s Belle, or Mickey and Minnie.

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, the title referring to the doll’s heavy cultural burden, also gets into speculation about human-doll connections. I would have liked to have seen more of that idea. Maybe Chucky could have made an appearance, or the terrifying ventriloquist’s dummy from Dead of Night, or the guy in the great doc Marwencol, who uses Barbies, other toys, and miniature sets he builds to exorcize a hideous trauma.

“What is the meaning of these figurines, these dolls?” an observer asks at the end of the doc. Are they magical, religious? “Is it simply for play, pornography, the fetishization of the human body.” Or maybe Barbie has meaning because of “the feelings and emotions and stories we invest in her … what is powerful is little girls acting out their dreams. It isn’t a piece of plastic.”

Tiny Shoulders screens:
-Thurs, May 3 at 6:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Fri, May 4 at 10:00 AM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sun, May 6 at 10:00 AM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »