After All This Time, Barbie Still Draws Some Feminists' Ire

Tiny Shoulders tackles a culture war going back decades.


Barbie Dolls
'Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie'

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie. Hulu. Available Friday, April 27.

At the rate millennials discover previously unknown anatomical flashpoints like thigh gaps and sideboobs, you may well wonder if the tiny shoulders in the title of Andrea Blaugrund Nevins' new Hulu documentary on the Barbie doll are some new aspirational physical phenomenon for today's on-fleek sista.

But actually, it's drawn from a comment by Mattel Inc.'s publicity chief, Michelle Chidoni, after another round of discordant arguments with feminist critics of her company's billion-dollar doll.

"Feminism, and how a girl sees herself, and self-esteem for girls, to put all that on the tiny shoulders of an 11-and-a-half-inch doll, is quite a burden," says the exhausted Chidoni.

It's a burden explored at delightful and occasionally poignant length in Tiny Shoulders. Nominally an inside look at Mattel's 2016 roll-out of several new chubby dolls (or, as the Mattel corporate-speak dictionary had it, "curvy"), Tiny Shoulders is really a history of Barbie and her feminist tormentors. And it turns out those tiny shoulders conceal some real muscle.

Tiny Shoulders emphatically makes the point that Barbie was not devised by a cabal of male misogynists but a pioneering female toy-company executive named Ruth Handler who had detested her years as a housewife ("Oh, shit, it was awful!" she exclaims in a clip from an old interview) and was puzzled that all the dolls in the late-1950s toy marketplace were babies, as if little girls were interested in nothing but their future reproductive function.

Handler's daughter and friends, she had noted, preferred to play with paper-doll adult figures, spinning little fantasies about grown-up life as they tried different dresses on the cut-outs. Why not create a three-dimensional version of those paper dolls, complete with (ka-ching!) lines of clothing and accessories?

Mattel's male executives were uniformly horrified by the idea of a doll with breasts, and the engineers said all those tiny fingers and toes would be impossible. (They weren't entirely crazy; when the company began manufacturing Barbie, new machinery had to be invested to mold her feet.)

But when Handler discovered Bild Lilli, a bosomy, foot-tall novelty doll sold in German tobacco shops, mostly to men ("I'm not quite sure what they do with her," one Mattel executive says, skittishly), Handler had her model. Mattel trimmed her bust size and de-beautified her a bit—Handler didn't want her looks to intimidate her 8-year-old customers—and by 1959, she was in stores.

Barbie brought in $351,000 the first year, a pretty healthy sum for Mattel, then a mom-and-pop toy company. Within a decade, Barbie sales had ballooned to $500 million a year, and would eventually soar over $1 billion annually. Gloria Steinem, in a Tiny Shoulders interview, scornfully declares that "I am so grateful I didn't grow up with Barbie. Barbie is everything we didn't want to be, and were told to be." Which raises the question: "Who's this we?"

In fact, little girls loved Barbie. Tiny Shoulders shows the giant stacks of scrapbooks holding letters and photos sent in by little girls anxious to share their Barbie adventures, many with inscriptions like "To my best pal, Barbie." They made it clear that the doll was being played with exactly as Handler had predicted, as an agent of their fantasies of the future.

And that future was not, mostly, lolling around the pool at Barbie's Dream House while Ken went off to work each day. As early as 1963, Career Girl Barbie came dressed in a tweed suit, topped with a woolen cloche, the famous decolletage nowhere in sight. Miss Astronaut Barbie beat Sally Ride to space by 18 years. Nurse Barbie came along that same year, and by 1973 she had finished med school and become Surgeon Barbie. Barbie ran for president in 1991, when Hillary Clinton was still just an ex-first-lady of Arkansas, and had the good sense not to call anybody deplorable.

"Barbie became things real women hadn't become," says Amy Richards, co-author of the Gen X feminist Manifesta and one of the surprise character witnesses for Barbie in Tiny Shoulders. "She kind of cracked the world open for a lot of these little girls who were seeing their moms, educated women, stuck at home."

(Admittedly, there have been occasional missteps. My favorite, not covered in Tiny Shoulders, was Black Canary Barbie, supposedly modeled after a comic-book character. But a lot of people thought her fishnet hose and black motorcycle jacket made her look more like Dominatrix Barbie.)

Sometime after her 50th birthday, though, Barbie's sales went into a decline, slipping down to around $900 million. The company not only lost faith in its own product but bought into the whole Barbie-as-body-shaming theory, even ignoring its own focus-group testing. One of the most amusing moments in Tiny Shoulders is Mattel executives watching little girls play with some prototype plus-size Barbies. The bosses' faces fall when one of the kids declares in a sternly disapproving voice: "These are fat!"

The company pushed ahead anyway, and in 2016 introduced several "curvy" Barbies while keeping Classic Barbie around. The single flaw in Tiny Shoulders is that Nevins accepts the word of Barbie's marketing propagandists that the new dolls were a success, based on the fact that they got a gazillion clicks on social media. In the real world of actual money, sales had an uptick in 2016—possibly due to the novelty value of the new dolls, possibly to the marketing whirlwind the company had mounted—but resumed their decline the next year. Size 16 Barbie is not going to save the brand (though, to be fair, Barbie's continued $900 million-plus annual sales are not exactly a fiscal Titanic.)

What's responsible for the decline of Barbie remains a mystery. Maybe women's options have broadened to the point that little girls no longer need to play fantasy games about their futures. Maybe the popularity of digital games means they no longer stick with dolls as long, trimming the sales of Barbie Glam Getaway Houses and Barbie Glam Convertibles.

The feminists interviewed for Tiny Shoulders have their own ideas about this. "I would like to see an actual Fat Barbie," says Roxane Gay, the plus-size author of The Bad Feminist, without apparent irony. Steinem, meanwhile, thinks all those Barbie career options are bad. "The idea that you're strengthening your daughter by saying, 'You can be anything,' really ends up making her feel guilty if she can't," Steinem declares. So, maybe a Bipolar Apocalypse Barbie, programmed with phrases like, "Glass ceiling!" and "Rape culture!" and, of course, "I'm going to go put my head in my Official Accessory Barbie Gas Oven!"