Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

I was born in 1986 and spent the bulk of my adolescence as a young girl making the most of the 90s.

Both the 80s and the 90s, in my opinion, are when pop culture was at its peak. Music, movies, toys, games, you name it – this era produced some of the most iconic entertainment to date and I am grateful to have experienced it first-hand. 

One toy I especially loved as a child was Barbie. I admired her beauty, clothes, accessories, and limitless opportunities to do, have or be anything she desired. Was she my role model? No. She was my toy and my creative outlet to enjoy imaginative play. I spent hours of my life dreaming and pretending and never once considered anything to be negative about Barbie. 

But as an adult and a mom of four daughters, for some reason I’ve been a little meh about my beloved Barbie. I haven’t withheld Barbie dolls from my girls, but I also haven’t encouraged them either. I never really acknowledged my reluctance to Barbie yet something about motherhood gives me this sense of alert to be cautious about this doll. 

Despite my meh-attitude, my third daughter, Livi, became captivated by Barbie at the petite age of two. It began during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when she would play Barbies near where I would exercise and over time her love of Barbie grew to the point where she sought to have a Barbie-themed birthday party. 

About a week before her third birthday, I began searching for throwback Barbie décor and came across a documentary on Hulu that featured Barbie. I was intrigued and stayed up past midnight one night to watch it. 

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie documents the life and controversy of Barbie and I found it to be absolutely fascinating. 

Barbie was invented by Ruth Handler and the first doll was introduced in March of 1959. Ruth and her husband Elliot founded the toy company Mattel, Inc, under which Barbie was produced. The inspiration for the doll came as Ruth would watch her daughter play with paper dolls (remember those?!) and change the dolls’ clothes. At that time, most dolls being made were baby dolls that taught young girls the life skill of how to care for an infant. Ruth imagined a different type of doll, one that was plastic, larger than a figurine, and made to replicate a woman’s grown body. Rather than the creative play of nurturing a baby doll, Ruth had a vision of young girls playing with an adult woman doll with endless opportunities to be, do or have anything she could dream of. 

In the late 50s and 60s when Barbie was first released, the concept of a woman being independent, working a job and providing for herself without any man was quite revolutionary. Think about it – most women during that time were homemakers whose biggest priorities were to take care of their children, their home, and their husband, all the while making life look easy with a smile plastered on their perfectly applied make-up face and perfectly put together housewife uniform of stockings, girdle, heels, and a dress. Additionally, Mattel introduced an African-American friend of Barbie in 1968 and later, an official Black and Latina Barbie in 1980.

Barbie went against the female norm at that time and offered possibility and potential for what real women were never able to become.

As the documentary recapped the formation of Barbie, I began to see Barbie in a new light and developed a new-found respect for the doll. Yet, as the documentary progressed so did the controversy over Barbie’s body, its diss with the feminism movement and its problematic messaging to young girls. 

I understand how all the controversy came about but after learning the history and original intent for Barbie as well as witnessing the current workplace environment of the Barbie corporate headquarters, all this controversy felt like smoke being blown and did not bother me one bit. This is most likely because I don’t idolize a product nor have I ever. I don’t give any product (or thing) the power or appeal to manipulate my thoughts, feelings or behavior.* Yet, I can see how naïve, vulnerable, and insecure young girls could and can fall into the trap of negative body image or low self-esteem and that is not okay.

Mattel agrees with the public’s concern which is why Tiny Shoulders isn’t afraid to address and respond to the questions most of the public has brought up over the years that target her body: 

Is Barbie’s body real or manufactured? Is it relatable or realistic? Does it negatively affect how girls see themselves? Why do we put so much emphasis on a doll’s body? Is Barbie a stereotype and if so, is that a good or bad image to portray?

It’s true, Barbie has carried a heavy load on her tiny shoulders for showcasing only one body type [for much of her lifespan]. Tiny Shoulders focuses on the weight of this negative message by documenting the design and marketing team’s involvement in the groundbreaking reshaping of Barbie’s traditional body into a curvier shape [in 2016]. Understanding the design, branding, messaging, and the public relations made me appreciate the thought, effort and work that goes into creating a toy I so often take for granted. 

Truthfully, I thought Tiny Shoulders did a fantastic job at showcasing both the highs and lows of the brand while not shying away from the many obstacles Barbie has encountered over the 60+ years since her introduction. And if you are like me and didn’t know Barbie’s hullabaloo before, your eyes most definitely will be open to the baggage this small doll has been lugging around for decades on end.

I found this whole story very interesting. After watching Tiny Shoulders, I feel empowered by Barbie rather than suppressed, stereotyped or body shamed. I see Barbie in a whole new light and am not afraid of my daughters following in my footsteps and cherishing the doll like I had as a child. Still, I will be cautious to monitor how my daughters play with Barbie dolls and will seek to identify if any type of negativity sprouts from their reaction to Barbie’s image, mentality/personality and the like. 

Keep in mind this review is just my opinion based on my personal experience with Barbie and my response to Tiny Shoulders. I would recommend this documentary to anyone who is interested in Barbie and/or the influence pop culture has had on society. However, because of some of the language used and the events or circumstances shown (such as a recap of Barbie’s “lows” that included a bathroom scale set at 110lbs), I would not recommend any girl under the age of 13 to watch this film. I was contemplating watching it with my two oldest daughters (aged 11 and 7) but chose against it and I am glad that I did. 

The Short List

Release: 2018

Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

Audience: Female, 13+

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mnC4LVGkr4

How to Watch it: Hulu

*This is coming from someone who battled low self-esteem, negative body image, and disordered eating. As a young girl and teenager, no product or marketing ploy negatively influenced me. However, it was my own insecurity (stemming from being an introvert who hates being the center of attention) as well as my peers and (later) my dance coach who contributed to my unhealthy depiction of the “perfect body.”

**The thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own. 

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