Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie – Review

The documentary Tiny Shoulders is available to stream April 27th on Hulu.

In this 90 minute film, director Andrea Nevins tells the story of Barbie over the last 55 years, with a focus on the relaunch of Barbie in 2016. With unusual behind the scenes access to Mattel’s design team, the film follows the staff through their deliberations and planning for “Project Dawn”- the dawn of a new doll. Interspersed with historical footage, the movie thoughtfully demonstrates how Barbie’s image was integrally tied to the culture of women’s roles in America. Since there are few people whose home did not have a Barbie doll, the message of the film resonates widely.

Barbie is more than just a doll. Tom Brokaw called her one of the “most durable personalities.” She shaped the aspirations of young girls and showed them what women could do. Imaginary play allowed girls to dream about careers they could have and places they could visit. Despite this progressive feminist outlook, over time, Barbie developed a negative reputation. She came to represent consumption, always needing more outfits and accessories. While at one time Barbie was Mattel’s hottest seller, sales had declined in recent years.

When Ruth Handler (who founded Mattel with her husband Elliott) created the doll it was novel. Based on paper dolls that were popular in the 1950s, Barbie was the first three dimensional doll that was not a baby. She was white, blond and thin – the “ideal” woman. With the world today now desirous of a wider view of beauty, Barbie needed to stay relevant. First Mattel varied the dolls’ ethnicities but kept the size and shape. In 2015, Kim Culmone, Head Designer, led the charge to design a new Barbie body. The team ended up with three new bodies: petite, tall and curvy, alongside the original.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story was learning about the marketing team’s (run by Michelle Chidoni) efforts to spin the launch. They worried that people would call the curvy doll fat and how that would impact girls’ self-perception. How would mothers decide which doll to purchase? Nevins does a good job of interviewing the key employees and filming engaging discussions of the staff which add richness to the viewers’ understanding of the dilemma. Additionally, the scope of the undertaking is effectively laid out – all of Barbie’s clothes, shoes, cars and home much change to accommodate Barbie’s new shape.

92% of American girls have owned a Barbie. With the redesign, portrayed as a success by Nevins, future generations will likely continue to purchase this toy for years to come.

I give Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie an A-.