Barbie has been a controversial figure since her inception. Before Barbie, little girls played with dolls that looked like babies. These dolls encouraged nurturing, mothering instincts. But then along came Barbie, a doll that had been “sexualized” with large breasts and hips, a distinctly adult doll that inspired little girls to dream about their own futures, to project their own aspirations.
I played with Barbies as a little girl. In fact, in a family of 4 sisters, we easily had over 100 Barbies between us. Probably over 200. Sometimes we’d get gifted 2 or 3 of the exact same, which was never a problem at all: “Twins!” we’d squeal gleefully.
Despite her figure, Barbie has always been somewhat of a feminist figure, albeit one based on conspicuous consumption. She held jobs that real life women were still dreaming about. She wasn’t saddled with kids. She drove her own car and owned her own home, independently, without the help of Ken, who was little more than another accessory. But no matter how many astronaut Barbies existed, she was still tall, blonde, blue-eyed, thin, with impossible, top-heavy measurements. Sleepover Barbie came with a scale permanently stuck at 110lbs and a diet book that simply said “Don’t eat.” Needless to say, real-life feminists could never quite embrace her, even as their own daughters flocked to toy stores to buy her up.
My sisters loved to play “family” but I had zero interest in play-acting motherhood. I was born this way: there was never a time when I didn’t know myself to be a childfree kind of gal. So Barbie was it for me. Barbie had the life I imagined for myself – a fabulous wardrobe, a cute convertible, a handsome boyfriend, a serious profession. The only problem was, she didn’t look a thing like me.
Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie documents the 2016 launch of a line of different-sized Barbies, including tall, petite, and curvy. Curvy Barbie has a thicker waist and no thigh gap. It seems like a no-brainer now, but for the people working at Mattel, it was ulcer-inducing times. Would feminists finally be appeased? Would they be derided for waiting too long? Would children embrace a “fat” Barbie, one that didn’t fit into the outfits they might already own? They were anxious to steer the narrative but were wise enough to know that social media would own them – and that a Time cover story would largely dictate her early adoption or lack thereof.
I would have embraced a thicker Barbie had she existed when I was a kid. Heck, I just checked out the catalog right now to see if the Curvy line includes one with pink hair and lots of tattoos (it doesn’t). Representations matters.
Barbie has never been just a toy. She’s an icon, with a place in our culture. Even Gloria Steinem has a thing or two to say about her in this doc. Director Andrea Nevins looks at Barbie’s reinvention from every angle, seemingly missing nothing. This is a moment in time worth documenting, and she has. And it also turns the tables on Barbie’s critics. Yes, this move was probably long overdue, but seeing things from the business side makes us realize what a gutsy move this truly was, with possible million dollar repercussions. Barbie will always have it just a little tougher than most if not all of her fellow toys just by virtue of who she is, what she represents, and what we project on to her. People are keen to find fault. Today she reflects a greater diversity – not every body, and not every ethnicity, but progress is progress – and not only is that worth applauding, I also think it deserves the careful consideration granted by Nevins and crew.