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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!"

Photo Credit: 'Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie'

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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  • SIV||

    one of the kids declares in a sternly disapproving voice: "These are fat!"

    Pack that little fat-shamer off to a reeducation camp.

  • NYC2AZ||

  • Elias Fakaname||

    I favor 50 foot billboards at each entrance to town that say "No Fat Chicks".

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    Barbie was & is a toy of imagination. She opened my mind to design & composition of fabrics. For my teen daughters, she provided a revenue stream, as they sold off my collection. My granddaughter has Minecraft.

  • Flinch||

    Too many of todays kids largely aspire to nothing of resale value, where they live and play in a digital world that is somebody elses intellectual property. I hope parents out there will be careful: kids need their tactile toys too.

  • CharlotteHaze||

    Absolutely! I despised baby dolls but loved Barbie. We'd make futuristic Patti Labelle-style outfits for her out of aluminum foil, build furniture out of trash, write Barbie plays for the dolls to "perform". It was a blast.

  • Sevo||

    Doggone that evolution! Men should learn not to favor women with narrow waists and broad hips!

  • Elias Fakaname||

    And huge gravity defying succulent tits.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The feminist scolds are the same lineage that Saki wrote about in 'The Toys of Peace'; they seriously expect children to play with a model of a municipal waste treatment plant and dolls of good little government drones.

  • BlueStarDragon||

    This article brings me back to my late 70's childhood with the dolls I played with. See what is not mention in this article was how little girls use to wave Barbie dolls like weapons at boys. Then they came out with a doll for boys that was cool call G.I Joe ! (In truth their where two dolls the other was Evel Knievel stunt cycle doll also cool) :)
    We finally had doll to fight back with without getting into fight with the girls. He came with lots of accessories including sniper rifles,2 different machine guns, pistols, repelling gear, combat jeep, c-4 explosives, garrote ext.
    We would also add to his arsenal Black Cats fire works and Snaps ( Snaps was made out of tissue paper, gunpowder and nitro glycerin. Came in boxes of 100 for a dollar if I remember right, Great for throwing at ants and Barbie & Ken dolls ). Any way it came so common for boys to have G.I Joe kill Barbie & Ken that SNL made a comedy routine about back in the 70's. G.I Joe days came to and end, when the anti war left protest about the dolls and got them discontinued. By the way their was a G.I Jane doll that was popular with boys as well.

  • SIV||

    Don't forget Jay J. Armes

  • BlueStarDragon||

    Forgot all about him LOL :)

  • creech||

    And yet you didn't massacre your school mates? So, is the current generation's problem "too easy access to guns" or has something else changed to make school violence with something other than a fist more acceptable?

  • BlueStarDragon||

    You make a good point their, During the 70's and even before gun miniatures would have advertisement for buying 22 rifles for your children at Christmas.

  • TangoDelta||

    Well, Sen. Feinstein has been saying for years that all the cool kids used "assault weapons" and didn't resort to fisticuffs. Perhaps it was more like 'only an idiot wouldn't use an "assault weapon"' but I can't recall her exact wording.

  • El Oso||

    Maybe they should make a lesbian Barbie, along with her girlfriend Butch and the rest of the LGBT crowd...

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Here is something similar.........

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oFoEJKiRvX8

    Battlin' lesbians!

  • Flinch||

    I love the breadth of the squirrel factor we all enjoy at Reason. With variety like this, most other sites just seem monochromatic.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    was Black Canary Barbie, supposedly modeled after a comic-book character.

    No supposedly required. It's absolutely a DC superhero.

  • Rich||

    there have been occasional missteps. My favorite, not covered in Tiny Shoulders, was Black Canary Barbie

    My favorite was "Math is HARD!"

  • Eidde||

    "unlike Ken"

    ...is the sort of tasteless joke a real crude yokel would tell.

  • DamnDirtyApe||

    That was Malibu Stacy...

  • Eidde||

    "Trolling feminists is easy and fun!"

    /Anti-Feminist Troll Barbie

  • Longtobefree||

    Not so much fun any more; it is all too easy.

  • Texasmotiv||

    Modeled after Lauren Southern?

  • Penis||

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

    But what doesn't amirite?!?!?

  • Aloysious||

    Haven't you heard? The penis is evil.

  • David Emami||

    Indeed. Zardoz has spoken.

  • Warren||

    ...when the company began manufacturing Barbie, new machinery had to be invested to mold her feet.

    Should that read, "had to invest in new machinery" or "invented"?

  • ||

    ^^ This guy gets it.

  • MarkLastname||

    Spelling is hard

  • LordOfLotion||

    Falling sales are not the only problem here. Over the years, Mattel has made some bad business decisions, including falling victim to a phishing scam in 2016 that almost cost them $3 million. Quality has gotten more abysmal with each passing year. They tried to keep the dolls at a certain price point instead of keeping quality up and gradually adjusting prices with inflation. They have not kept up with tech, and when they did, it freaked people out. They've started catering to every SJW cause that comes along like it's going to solve all their problems.

    But the core of the issue is that no one loves Barbie any more. People got caught up in the NRFB collector mentality of keeping the dolls in boxes instead of letting the kids play with her and making fond memories of her. So the kids grew up resenting the dolls instead. Now they want to buy their kids things they enjoyed—and Barbie isn't one of them. Barbie is a bath tub play toy for toddlers now, not a toy for sophisticated kids with iPads. I think they're past the point of no return. But if they aren't, she won't do it by being a model for My 600lb Life. Barbie will only survive by doing what she does best: Making people love her.

  • BigT||

    My granddaughter has a trunk full of a dozen Barbies ( her mother's) and plays with them for hours, acting out future life events.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    My 5 year old granddaughter is also a fan and got me to watch the Barbie cartoon show with her which is actually pretty funny.

  • Cyto||

    My 5 year old loves her Barbies. And she loves the Barbie cartoons. They are pretty bad by today's standards. But they are a million times better than the crap that my generation loved growing up: Super Friends, Land of the Lost, Hong Kong Phoey... it was all crap.

    Her 8 year old sister never had the slightest interest in a Barbie and to my knowledge has never once joined her little sister to play dolls. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    This Sanaa crap got started the. Oment we stopped beating hippies with nightsticks whenever they started bitching about something. That face them the idea that their ideas had validity and that they should have a say in things,

    None of which is true, beating the shit out of a dirty hippie is ALWAYS the right call.

  • BigT||

    "'You can be anything,' really ends up making her feel guilty if she can't," Steinem declares"

    But little boys can be astronauts, or ballplayers, or superheroes, and thats ok to push.

    Get f'd Steinem.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  • Cyto||

    There is no way Gloria Steinem actually said that. It must be fake news. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

    Next thing you'll tell me is that she defended a 47 year old president's right to take advantage of a 22 year old intern.

  • DamnDirtyApe||

    Why don't boys have body issues with G.I. Joe, He Man, etc?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Cuz they don't have penises.

  • Rich||

    Weiner!

  • Aloysious||

    Isn't that Stoopid Weiner still in jail? I wonder if he has body issues.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Because we assume anyone who is prettier or with better abs is just some fag..........which they are.

  • Kempis||

    I remember my sister and I used to play Trailer Trash Barbie. Ken was a deadbeat, whom we just left on the couch watching TV, When Barbie was pregnant, she'd go about her day with half a plastic Easter egg shoved up her dress. When she wasn't pregnant, she wore a bikini top and shorts. Fun times.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Little (girl) children want (skinny) Barbies, but we should not listen to them, because they are children.

    Little children want a gun-free hazardless world, and we should listen to them, because they are children.

    Got it.

  • John's broseph||

    "The company not only lost faith in its own product but bought into the whole Barbie-as-body-shaming theory..."

    I think some companies have a real issue with their executives being disconnected from the rest of society, and thus relying on social media as a proxy of it.

    This is a similar situation to Delta going out of it's way to reject the NRA. The C suite of Delta probably only associate with people who find guns disgusting, and rely on Twitter to fill in the rest. There's no doubt in my mind that these companies think they're making good business decisions, but the blindspots are huge.

  • Flinch||

    That does it. I'm getting an NRA hat for flying... just to piss off the pinheads running Delta into the ground. Can I expect to get extra screening from the TSA goons? Probably. Anyone clearly identifying themselves as a regular [non-muslim] American gets abused just to prove they aren't "profiling". Funny how that works... my profile should serve as an instant trigger for miswired PC minds trying to wash themselves of their inappropriate guilt.

  • LarryA||

    I think Mattel is trying to please Those Who Cannot Be Pleased.

    Wonder what would happen if they blew off the SJWs and came out with Concealed Carry Barbie and IDPA Champion Barbie?

    After all the heads explode, follow up with Big Game Hunter Barbie and Prepper Barbie.

  • NYC2AZ||

    Most companies that have begun the perpetual virtue signaling apology crap have lost sight of who spends money on their products. Feminists generally aren't going to buy a Barbie for their kids, fat Barbie or otherwise.

  • Eidde||

    They'll buy Rosie O'Donnell Barbie!

  • Rich||

    How about Protester Barbie for outside the Barbie Convention?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Gender-confused Barbie?

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Most feminists don't have any money, because of their worthless women's studies degrees, amd the overall dearth of professorships to teach said worthless degree. Chicks need to focus on being hotter, giving better head, and being good at cooking my dinner and cleaning up after me.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Remember when McDonald's made the best fries in the world? Then, they replaced the beef lard with vegetable oil to suck up to the whiners, and it's been downhill ever since.

    -jcr

  • Flinch||

    It is sad. I was in Singapore a little over ten years ago, and the McDonalds I visited was using all the old recipes, including... frying the apple pie. I enjoyed it [the big mac was actually delicious], and was sad to return home to the carboard menu that always has me asking... wtf?

  • BlueStarDragon||

    G.I Jane came with her own set of machine guns and sniper rifle does that count.

  • Flinch||

    Mattel has likely experienced a similar mirage McDonalds did in Berkely years back: a group of leftist crusaders pretending to campaign for something, when they have all intentions of never being a customer under any circumstances in the first place.
    Business schools really need to start teaching their MBA's about spotting/dealing with false front campaigns, and the dangers of todays bots. It used to be that moving a company by means of disinformation required a small group of letter writers meet/agree on key language components, and then crank out a hundred or so letters each. Today, the mirage is ten times bigger. A dozen people can look like 5,000 in a matter of hours, and CEO's who aren't steeled for that ahead of time put their company at risk with their ignorance. That stands athwart much so called "sensitivity training" but so what? Broaden the toolbox or get bowled over.

  • Brandybuck||

    I would buy those.

  • Wolf Larsen||

    I seem to recall some sort of bionic man knock-off in the 70s with one bionic leg.

    We would imagine him running in circles really, really fast.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    That was Mike Power, Atomic Man. Part of the GI Joe line when they were trying to de-emphasize the military aspects and make Joe more of a Doc Savage-type adventurer.

    Then they cancelled the whole line and replaced it with a science-fictiony 'Super Joe' for a few years.

    Then the '80s came and they brought back GI Joe as a military set, but with much smaller figures.

  • Sevo||

    "I seem to recall some sort of bionic man knock-off in the 70s with one bionic leg."
    Imagine his DI:
    "Left, Left, Left, Left..."

  • Eidde||

    As long as it's not a *Klaus* Barbie doll, it should be OK.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Or a Claus Von Bülow doll. Complete with pill bottles, 30 year old scotch, and insulin injection kit.

  • Libertarian||

    OT. Ocala, FL, school shooting.

    FFS. An unarmed female teacher detains a gunman until the resource officer comes and arrests him. The officer's COLLEAGUES hail him as a hero.

    "Deputy James "Jimmy" Long of the Marion County Sheriff's Office was hailed a hero by his colleagues . . . "

    "The 56-year-old then began to speak with Bouche, who was allegedly holding his hands up in surrender. McManis-Panasuk claimed that Bouche said he wanted to be arrested and that he is "mentally ill." When McManis-Panasuk asked if he had shot a gun, he replied yes. When she asked where the gun was fired, Bouche allegedly told her that he "shot a door.""

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018.....-hero.html

  • Sevo||

    "School Mass Shooting in Florida; film at 11"
    CNN

  • Brandybuck||

    The officer was the hero, not the unnamed female teacher who detained the perp. Business as usual I see.

  • Sevo||

    OT:
    "EU Reiterates Demand for U.S. Tariffs Waiver as Clock Ticks Down"
    [...]
    "A top European Union official reiterated the bloc's demand for a permanent exemption from the U.S.'s steel and aluminum tariffs, as a temporary reprieve is set to expire on May 1 and fears mount that escalating trade tensions could threaten the global economy."
    https://www.sfgate.com/business/
    article/EU-Reiterates-Demand-for
    -U-S-Tariffs-Waiver-as-12853949.php

    Ken Shultz, on these pages, is making the claim that Trump is using the tariffs as bargaining chips in negotiations regarding other issues. I'm skeptical.
    But if Trump uses this to DEMAND that the Euros pay for their own damn defense, I will be convinced.

  • Sevo||

    Hey, it's Saturday night, right?

    "Kaepernick accepts rights award, decries 'lawful lynching'"
    [...]
    "AMSTERDAM — Amnesty International gave former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick its Ambassador of Conscience Award on Saturday for his kneeling protest of racial injustice that launched a sports movement and might have cost him his job.
    Onetime 49ers teammate Eric Reid presented Kaepernick with the award during the ceremony."
    https://www.sfgate.com/sports/
    article/Kaepernick-accepts-rights
    -award-decries-12854258.php

    You might think AI would have learned after the fiasco regarding Obo and the award the Danes should be embarrassed about.
    But no, and then they get a dim-bulb claiming he's been "lynched" for being an NFL QB impersonator.
    Get lost, Kaep. You suck as a player, so you'd have to bring something to the table other than whinging on company time.

  • Echospinner||

    Yeah. My inner libertarian says do whatever the hell you want but the whole thing got out of hand. It didn't help the game out and it is not like the ratings are booming.

    To continue the rant..why play the national anthem in the first place which should be America the Beautiful anyway. Ray Charles was right it is a better song.

    Plus I agree he sucks anyway.

  • Echospinner||

    Oh I forgot

    Daylight savings time. Stupidest thing ever.

    Also can we just go full metric? I work in metric and still live in the old system when I drive. One generation and it is over. The kids will have a much easier time of it next gen.

  • Sevo||

    "To continue the rant..why play the national anthem in the first place which should be America the Beautiful anyway. Ray Charles was right it is a better song."
    Prefer a total lack of jingoism; WIH does a football game have to do with the national anthem or anything of the sort.
    Get your asses out there, and play the game.

    "Plus I agree he sucks anyway."
    Pretty sure that Brady could kneel whenever he wanted, and wouldn't be unemployed.
    He needed 10 seconds in the pocket (Hey, linemen!), receivers to come back to the exact point he threw it *this time*, running backs to make up for the defense knowledge that there was no way he was throwing it on this down.
    Kaep's skills were such that he made everyone around him seem to play worse.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    It isn't jingoism. It's patriotism to our constitutional republic, which was born in blood, not pace. It also honors all the folks who had to bleed p, suffer and die to make it happen and help us survive as a nation. It's is not and never has been about showing subservience to the federal government, or any current leader.

    I find that the pieple who have a hard time understanding never served, and don't understand the value of doing so. They think the military is full of stupid yokels whose sole purpose is whatever foreign afventurre people around here are irked about. They really don't get it.

  • gormadoc||

    It was written by a socialist as a way to instill nationalism in students. It was supposed to recall the patriotic fervor of the Union during the civil war. It was made law by Congress in 1942 along with other modern flag-treatment practices. It's definitely jingoism.

    Nothing about the pledge is intended to honor the military, past or present. Only the nation.

    And, like it or not, pledging allegiance to the Republic is subservience.

  • colorblindkid||

    It absolutely is a better song, but it has "God" in it, so it will never ever be the official anthem. Even God Bless America is a better anthem song.

  • Johnny B||

    I don't know about that. Jimmy Hendrix never did "America the beautiful" to my knowledge.

  • Echospinner||

    And here I was getting ready to order a Dinotrux toy for my grandson. Might confuse him into thinking he will grow up to be a mechanical Stegosaurus. Bad for his self esteem. Who could possibly grow up into something that awesome cool?

    Plus it smashes things with its barbed tail. Toxic masculinity right there.

    And the show is sexist. There are only two girl dinotrux and they are obviously in a subordinate role.

    Yeesh these people need to get a life.

  • NYC2AZ||

    Hey now, when I was 6 years old, I identified as a T-Rex but my dinosaurphobic parents just laughed off my proclaimations as I mauled my plastic brontosaurus. That rejection of my true inner self scarred me for life.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    I currently identify as a mixed gallifeyan/kryptonian. As far as I'm concerned, the government owes me a TARDIS, a cycle of 12 regenerations, and yellow sun fueled superhuman powers. Because it's my choice, goddammit.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    Short version: Gloria Steinem and fellow feminists think having something that approaches perfection as an example is bad, because ..... Poor examples build esteem?

    If you are the ugliest person in the room you are still ugly even if you think you aren't. I am often amazed at the number of folks that have no idea of their unattractive appearance. I'm no looker, but maybe playing with my G.I. Joes set a bar.

  • Brandybuck||

    It dawned on my several years back why all the females in video games had wide hips and big breasts (and why all the males were built). It's a matter of scale. Properly proportioned humans look silly as video game caricatures. A properly proportioned female looks flat. A properly proportioned male looks like dweeb. As the uncanny valley is approached, the exaggerations are reduced.

    Same thing with Barbie. The body features are exaggerated because the doll is so small.

  • Liberty Lover||

    What about Ken and Skipper? Do they draw feminist ire?

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