Should The Weight Of The World Really Rest On Barbie's 'Tiny Shoulders'?
Hulu's new documentary explores Barbie's influence on society. But at the end of the day, maybe a doll is just a doll.
Hulu's trendy new documentary, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, explores how the Barbie doll has adapted to our changing culture over the course of 60 years. From the doll's humble beginnings to the controversial 2016 debut of a new Barbie collection with more "realistic" body measurements, Barbie's history is more complicated than you may think, and Tiny Shoulders unpacks it all.
In the doc, director Andrea Nevins goes behind the scenes at Barbie's parent company, Mattel, to get the inside scoop on its modern strategy. She interviews prominent feminist figures like Gloria Steinem and Roxane Gay in pursuit of an answer to the heavily debated question, "Is Barbie a figure of empowerment or oppression?" While I'm not sure of the answer, one thing is clear: Feminism has changed a lot since 1959, and Mattel is having a hard time keeping up. I'm just not convinced this burden should fall on Barbie's "tiny shoulders" in the first place.
As the documentary illustrates, when Barbie first hit stores in 1959, she was meant to be an inspiration. While some consumers were outraged that a toy for young children would have such adult features, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler had a vision. Inspired by the German toy Bild Lilli, Barbie had big breasts, a tiny waist, and a strong, independent nature. In Handler's perfect world, Barbie's life included a career and personal success — not just marriage and motherhood. The dolls flew off the shelves.
But in 2018, when parents are rethinking which toys they’re purchasing for their children (toy guns, for example, not such a great idea), Barbie's unrealistic image isn't going to cut it, and the doll's increasingly poor sales numbers are proof. To adapt to a more body positive generation, Mattel had to rethink what the doll should look like. Enter Project Dawn, a 2016 initiative to release Barbies that look more like the girls who play with them. The pressure of transforming Barbie into a toy that's more relatable for 21st century kids fell into the hands of Mattel's design and marketing teams, and we get an intimate look at that process throughout the doc. After months of planning, panicking, and public relations, the film culminates in the release of a brand new Barbie.
While I was watching, it was hard not to flash back to my own experience with the doll. I don’t remember which models I had, nor do I remember ever dying to look like them, but they were blonde with blue eyes. They were tall and skinny with long legs, perfect hair, trendy outfits, and roughly 36-18-33 measurements. According to author Galia Slayen, who appeared in the documentary, Barbie was also about 5'9" with a size 3 shoe.
I’m a brunette of Latin American descent — a first-generation American with Cuban and Colombian parents. I have brown eyes, and as a kid, I was always short for my age. I had fair skin, strong eyebrows and, well, lots of hair (dark hair) everywhere else, too. I don’t think I paid much attention to any of this until a boy in fourth grade told me my legs were hairy. That same day, I begged my mom to let me shave. For the first time, I realized that maybe I didn’t look like everyone else — certainly not like Barbie — and I wasn’t completely comfortable with that. If there were more dolls that looked like me back then, and more girls on TV with fair skin and thick hair and brown eyes, would that little boy have been kinder to me about my hairy legs? Maybe, maybe not. But as a child, it's important to have role models that look like you. At the most basic level, you should have a doll you might actually see yourself relating to as an adult.
I’m not a parent yet, but I wouldn’t want my daughters playing with dolls that don’t teach them something about diversity; that it’s okay to look different, and that their ethnic background, race, culture, and body are beautiful just as they are. At the same time, I'm not going to rely on a doll to instill these values in my kids.
Sure, I’m thrilled there’s now a curvy Barbie, but I do think that, at the end of the day, this issue is greater than Barbie will ever be. Tiny Shoulders does a fantastic job of shining a light on the challenges Mattel has encountered and how the brand chose to face them head-on, but let's be real: Adding petite and curvy Barbies to the lineup doesn’t fix most of the real life problems people like me face on the daily — and I don't think it should have to. Hispanic women are underrepresented in film, and cast neatly into the stereotypical roles of maids, prostitutes, and sexy bartenders. Paid 54 cents to every dollar that white men are paid, Latinas face the greatest pay gap in America – and no matter what Mattel does, Barbie isn’t going to remedy that.