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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | The Barbie doll has been a feminist boogeyman (or boogeyperson) for decades. As an inanimate object, she’s an easy target — but there are real people behind the doll. The documentary “Tiny Shoulders” looks at Barbie’s journey from groundbreaking toy, to cultural lightning rod, to her most recent redesign for 21st century sensibilities.
Although Barbie is often cited as a poor role model for girls due to her slender build and ample bosom, Barbie’s origin was actually quite progressive for her time. “Tiny Shoulders” spends the first half of its 91-minute runtime examining Barbie’s creation and the life of her creator, Ruth Handler. There is much talk of Handler’s struggle to convince the conservative toy industry that a market existed for such a product. Back in the ’50s, when most dolls looked like babies and were intended to teach girls how to be nurturing, Barbie’s adult body was considered inappropriate. Not only was she a busty grownup, but also an independent career girl who had uniforms and outfits suitable to her occupations.
This part of the documentary is accompanied by footage from Handler’s home movies and personal photographs, with several shots of a gun-toting Handler surrounded by her exclusively male peers. “Tiny Shoulders” also gives audiences a look inside Mattel’s “Barbie Vaults” of classic dolls, and vintage advertising footage.
The second half follows Mattel’s staff as Barbie’s latest design team begins working on a new look for her. The filmmakers document Barbie’s previous re-designs, which happen about once a decade — but this latest revamp was implemented specifically to address current views on female body image. There are interviews with the team, including at least one person who opposes the new direction. Not to mention frustrated toy designers who point out the complications of making a functional toy that matches the desired aesthetics (Barbie needs a “thigh gap” in order for her legs to move).
This gives a well-rounded view of a brand facing a dilemma that has no clear solution. While the filmmakers and staff are positive about the social and political message of the new dolls, it is clear that anti-Barbie bullies were compelling Mattel to cater to the very people who hate their brand. One scene shows the PR team preparing for the launch of new the dolls by holding a mock social media storm, complete with simulated snarky tweets, and hostile blogging. The movie conveys the reality that Barbie will receive intense backlash from someone, no matter her designers do.
Fans who have always loved Barbie will get to see the people behind the new direction, complete with rare footage, pics, and interviews from the old days. People who never cared for the doll will learn a lot about the good intentions Mattel has had from the beginning. Early on in “Tiny Shoulders,” Ruth Hander mentions that the first Barbie was deliberately designed to be “not too beautiful” precisely so that girls wouldn’t feel she set an unattainable goal. Ironically, this intention was overlooked by generations of detractors, right up to the release of the new dolls. The final scenes of “Tiny Shoulders” show one of Barbie’s critics holding the new “curvy” Barbie and lamenting that she’s still not curvy enough.
Thurs., 4/26, 5:30pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave., at Vesey St.). For tickets and more info, visit tribecafilm.com/festival. To order by phone, call 646-502-5296 ($23, evening/weekend; $12, matinee; service fees apply for web and phone orders).