It’s also the subject of Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, a new documentary by Andrea Nevins recently released on Hulu, which follows the efforts to transform Barbie into a more 21st-century toy. Nevins follows the designers and marketers attempting to rebrand Barbie’s public image by remodeling her appearance. Along the way, Nevins interviews feminist historians and writers including Gloria Steinem, Amanda Foreman, Peggy Orenstein, and Roxane Gay about their own impressions of Barbie dolls. As Nevins loops in cultural touchstones like beauty pageants, Dreamhouses, and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, it gradually becomes apparent that a history of Barbie is nothing less than a history of Western womanhood. Our Barbies, ourselves.
From her very conception, Tiny Shoulders reveals, Barbie was problematic. Prior to her creation, the only toy dolls available for children came in the form of babies, which encouraged little girls to see themselves in nurturing roles. But Ruth Handler, who managed sales for her husband’s toy-manufacturing company, noticed that her daughter would routinely assign adult personalities to cut-out paper dolls while playing with them. She came up with Barbie, a grown-up doll—with a specifically adult figure—upon which girls could project their own evolving identities and ideas of what they might become. On a trip to Europe, Handler encountered the Bild Lilli doll, a sexualized joke toy sold to adult men in tobacco shops, and based the first Barbie prototype on this model.
Barbie’s physicality has been a lightning rod ever since. As Nevins points out, the doll’s figure has been tweaked several times during her almost 60-year history: her breasts enlarged, her waist taken in. Mattel, the toy company founded by Handler’s husband and his partner, claimed that Barbie’s streamlined figure made it easier to dress and undress her. Critics and researchers have pointed out that Barbie’s statistics, scaled to a real woman’s size, would be about 36-18-33, and that her frame is so underweight she’d be unable to menstruate. Her feet, permanently distorted into the shape of high-heeled shoes, made it impossible for her to stand, let alone serve in Operation Desert Storm or perform surgery. Not to mention that Barbie’s blonde hair and white skin perpetuated the idea to girls that ideal beauty conformed to a single ethnicity and hair color.
As Nevins goes inside Mattel HQ in El Segundo, California in 2015, it’s clear that Barbie has reached a crisis point. At the time, her sales are down 21 percent globally and the power of her brand is waning. Something has to be done to make Barbie more appealing to modern moms. But the top-secret process of reinventing her, codenamed Project Dawn, is a fraught one, rife with flash points, cultural landmines, and potentially explosive debates around gender, race, and body image. Plus, there are practical issues to consider, like whether taller Barbies will fit on custom-sized store shelves, and how different shapes of Barbies require the size of everything else to change accordingly: bicycles, shoe sizes, even the doors of the Dreamhouse. When you consider how complicated everything becomes, a Barbie designer tells the camera, it’s easier to understand why it’s taken so long.