It started with a paper doll. Then, there was the buxom German doll Bild Lilli, sold in gas stations mainly to adult men who did, well, something with them. Strange bedfellows, but Mattel executive Ruth Handler suspected that combining the two items could result in the creation of new kind of toy for girls, one that moved past traditional baby dolls and straight into an expanded (and aspirational) world of play. It was a big idea, and in 1959, it wasn’t exactly a popular one. Handler was right, of course, and Barbie rocketed to sustained success over the course of decades, becoming one of the most popular toys of all time, a tiny plastic icon with staying power.
Until she didn’t. What’s next for the doll who had it all?
In “Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie,” filmmaker Andrea Nevins does just that — she rethinks and recontextualizes Barbie and her legacy during a pivotal time in the doll’s story. By weaving together the history of Barbie — a history that is frequently presented as much more feminist and forward-thinking than most people give it credit for, despite some major missteps — with a behind-the-scenes look at the making of an entirely new Barbie line, Nevins finds some uncanny and often emotional connections. The film uses Barbie as a lens by which to explore topics like body image, the patriarchy, and the various waves of feminism, making a clever case that the story of Barbie is really the story of the modern woman.
First, though, there’s noted feminist thinker Gloria Steinem, who says it plain in an early interview: “Barbie was everything we didn’t want to be.” How do you get past that? (And she’s not the only one to take aim at the public perception of the doll, as Nevins packs in enlightening talking head interviews with other luminaries like Roxanne Gay, Peggy Orenstein, and various Barbie historians, all with their own concerns and insights.)
Such is the dilemma facing Mattel in the modern age. Set in the nervous lead-up to Mattel’s announcement of its Project Dawn, which culminated with the creation of three new Barbie body types back in 2016, “Tiny Shoulders” is also an examination of a business on the brink.
Nevins does quick work of making her audience care about the earning potential of a multi-million dollar business by honing in on some other remarkable women, and the filmmaker uses her unprecedented access to focus on the executives who are tasked with bringing the doll into a new era. Those subjects, mostly women, include Mattel vice president Kim Culmone (whose job is a tough combination of safeguarding the legacy of the doll, while also pushing her into new spaces) and public relations whiz Michelle Chidoni (who refers to herself as “Barbie’s publicist” and seems preternaturally attuned to predicting bad press).
It’s clear early on that things are not rosy in Barbieland, as a bad earnings call — yes, we’re talking unprecedented access — and a series of unflattering headlines illuminate just how much sales have flatlined. Scads of archival footage, including interviews and commercials, help trace Barbie’s path from breakout hit to cultural touchstone to something approaching irrelevance. No wonder her makers are so worried. Culmone and her cohorts eventually hatched their big idea, which stems from years of discussions (Culmone is honest: they’ve been talking about this for a long time, with little movement) and reams of bad press, in an ambitious bid to return Barbie to a place of significance.
The Mattel brass wholly understand the weight of what they’re attempting, and they’re also aware of how desperate and out of touch it still might come across to an outspoken public. In one frantic scene, they gather with a crisis PR firm to anticipate what might happen when they announce their new dolls (including a Curvy body, plus a Tall and a Petite), including splashy fake headlines and reams of bad social media buzz. A cover story in Time nearly unravels the publicity team, as they wonder what message a cover image they can’t approve might send.
Yet Nevins’ meticulously made film, bolstered by editing from Azin Samari, delivers a strong message of hope not just for Barbie and the women behind her, but every person who ever cherished the doll. There’s a lot resting on those tiny shoulders, but she can handle it.
“Tiny Shoulders” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Hulu will release it on April 27.