In 1965, four years before the moon landing, a great American went into space. Astronaut Barbie wore a silver metallic jumpsuit, moon boots, and a kicky white plastic helmet, all the better to breathe with in a vacuum. It didn’t matter that it would be another 18 years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, would actually set foot on the Challenger, or that Astronaut Barbie’s blue eyeshadow predicted the NASA-issue makeup kit that Ride’s male colleagues later assumed she’d need. For Barbie, not even the sky was the limit.
Since then, Barbie has conquered other frontiers that long remained maddeningly out of reach for nondolls. She’s been a Major League Baseball player, an Army ranger, a Nascar driver, and even president (running in 2016 on an all-female ticket). With Barbie, the slogan goes, you can be anything. No children’s toy has been more keyed in to shifts in popular culture when it comes to women, large and small. But Barbie’s relevance comes at a cost. Since her inception, she’s been an avatar for every debate about what modern women should be, do, say, represent, and (most of all) look like. It’s a heavy burden for an 11.5 inch doll to carry—no matter how uncommonly diverse her resume might be.
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.
What’s so unique about Barbie, Tiny Shoulders argues, is that she’s a microcosm for larger debates and trends in the real world. In the early 1960s, when only 22 percent of American women were in the workforce, Barbie was forging a career as a business executive (with side hustles as an air stewardess and a fashion designer). From 1959 to 1971, Barbie’s eyes were painted to be cast down demurely; her straight-ahead gaze coincided with the crest of feminism’s second wave. As Kim Culmone, Mattel’s head of Barbie design, works to reimagine the dolls in all kinds of shapes and skin colors, she has to navigate a wealth of issues regarding language and packaging that Handler could never have imagined.
The camera captures Culmone’s crestfallen face as she watches a focus group of girls playing with prototypes of a curvier Barbie. “Hello, I’m a fat person,” one of the children says in a mock-Barbie voice, while the others giggle. But the movie also documents how uncontrollably thrilled Mattel’s mostly female team is when they receive mockups of the redesigned Barbies, dressed in an array of peplum tops and distressed denim. “It’s like Christmas morning,” one woman says. There’s something about these dolls that still captures their imagination. Is it nostalgia? Barbie’s wardrobe? Or what she still represents? “Work from 9 to 5 and then change in a sec for an evening with Ken,” as a TV ad from the ’90s advertising a day-to-night Barbie puts it. “We girls can do anything.”
The most suspenseful arc of Tiny Shoulders hinges on how the new Barbies are received in the world, which I won’t spoil. But the most fascinating aspect of the movie is how it uses Barbie as a metaphor for a culture that’s still infinitely more preoccupied with what a woman looks like than what she says. In one scene, Nevins films Michelle Chidoni, Mattel’s VP for global communications, as she drives to work in her car. On the radio, a fleet of commentators dissect what Hillary Clinton is doing right in her landmark presidential campaign. Her jacket is too expensive, they agree, but her new full-time makeup artist is helping, since Clinton overall looks much better. For comparison, the blurb on a 2016 “President Barbie” box touted her “leadership in polished outfits worthy of the White House.” The doll might have broken through one glass ceiling, but there are others even she can’t seem to shatter.