Doll Torture was the name of the game when I was a kid, and my sister, the neighbor girls, and I had a favorite victim. We cut off Barbie’s hair and colored her pocked scalp blue with nail polish. We drew heavy eye brows on her with sharpie. We stuck sewing needles through her ears and nose to pierce them, made her into a “human blockhead”; we’d have done her belly button too, if her abdomen weren’t solid plastic. We discovered temporary tattoos were permanent for her and gave her layer after layer of tramp stamps with the cheap ones we got for free at the Summer Reading Program and the dentist. We wrapped her in wet toilet paper to mummify her. We hung her by her ankles from the clothes line.
We keel-hauled the icon of the world we were on the cusp of entering; a world where we wouldn’t be as beautiful as we felt we should be; a world where frizzy hair, boyish attitudes, and thick eyebrows didn’t seem to have a place.
Like generations of girls — long preceding Barbie, as Hulu’s new documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie points out — we didn’t recognize ourselves in the adult world. Barbie, by contrast, has a recognition rate of 98 percent. Maybe it was jealousy that drove us to it, or rage, or the desire to demolish the limits we felt had been imposed on us, the limits of our femininity.
And who had constructed this femininity? What did it mean to a woman, to a girl, to be feminine? What role had Barbie played in it, and what role should she play?
Tiny Shoulders delves into these questions in collections of interviews with Mattel employees and feminist icons, clips, headlines, and photos from Barbie’s storied life, and footage of the team charged with redesigning Barbie for a new generation.
The documentary’s story, as well as Barbie’s own, begins with Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler — a self-described “gutsy” woman who refused the 1950s narrative of self-abnegation through marriage. In watching her daughter, Barbie’s namesake, play with paper dolls, she realized young girls were projecting their imagined adult personas through play. This gave them a sense of control, a way to see themselves.
She set out to create a doll which girls could use to play out the narratives they imagined they would live in their adulthood, not a baby doll meant to pigeon-hole them into the role of nurturer. Indeed, Barbie was, as one speaker notes, “always single and carefree.” Ken was practically an accessory. She had always been a working girl — nurse, astronaut, airline stewardess. From the very beginning she had her own life.
This was the “relevance” that Barbie Design Director Kim Culmone claims had gone missing from the brand before its 2016 #CurvyBarbie makeover. It was “not having the impact in the world that we set out to have,” she says. “Barbie’s the only doll that can sit front row at fashion shows and be the subject of feminist theory classes and create such polarizing dialogue in culture, but sometimes culture is moving so fast that Barbie can fall behind.” So begins the story of trying to get her up to speed.
The documentary skillfully parallels this main plot with the stories that flew by as culture moved “so fast” — the bra-burnings at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, women breaking into high powered patriarchal jobs, Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas. Barbie was there throughout the history of the feminist movement, Tiny Shoulders convincingly argues, either reflecting culture or a few steps behind it. And in those moments she fell behind, Gloria Steinem says in one of her interview segments, “Barbie was pretty much everything the feminist movement was trying to escape from.”
This is one type of reaction the team, particularly Michelle Chidoni, the Barbie Public Relations manager, worries about throughout the film. “People dig for negative news on us. They dig for it,” she says at one point, and again later, “We’re developing this all in a vacuum of knowing that the world loves to hate us.”
The heart of the matter seems to lie in her comments late in the film: “I don’t think we’re out of a phase at all in this world where women are judged by the way that they look. It’s a different game for women. It still just is. There are issues in feminism that human beings haven’t solved, so why a plastic doll can do it, I’m still unclear. Feminism, and how a girl sees herself, and self-esteem for girls, to put that all on the tiny, plastic shoulders of an 11-and-a-half-inch doll is quite a burden.”
The pressures of Barbie’s image parallel the issues of image all women face: how our images are used to define us, both by ourselves and others. As John Berger says in Ways of Seeing, quoted in the documentary, “From earliest childhood [a woman] is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success in her life.”
“How do we label packaging? How do we refer to these dolls? Am I saying that they’re curvy? Am I saying that they’re plus size? Am I saying that they’re curvier? Am I saying that they’re bigger? I have to give a descriptor. That’s a cultural landmine.” Chidoni worries at one point. “If we don’t name them, then she’s going to be ‘Fat Barbie,’ because, guess what, that’s a good headline. Everything we do is under a microscope.”
It is this snarl — image, self, world, and history — that Tiny Shoulders aims to dissect. As it plucks each of these chords, it seems to find an internal, personal relevance.
This relevance is to be found in the thoughts and feelings of the women interviewed, in their work lives, in their ideologies, and in their stories. Barbie becomes an icon for what they carry with them through the world. For Culmone, Barbie is what helped her play out scenarios of a full adult life during a lonely childhood. Chidoni sees Barbie through the eyes of a working mother, feeling the weight of the world as it watches.
In a particularly poignant scene, M.G. Lord, one of the authors interviewed, unboxes her Barbies from her childhood and reflects that Barbie can be “very profound in the inner life of a child.” She explains how her mother sewed straps onto the classic black-and-white Barbie swim suit following a mastectomy, how she found her Barbies dressed in Ken’s clothing, how her Ken doll was dressed in one of Barbie’s cocktail dresses, how her play with her Barbies paralleled the death of her mother.
I feel Culmone’s desires, Chidoni’s anxieties, but particularly Lord’s reflectiveness. See, those techniques I perfected in Barbie Torture served me well.
My favorite Barbie lived under my bed where no one could see how well I’d kept her and criticize my nascent femininity. I’d carefully bobbed her hair and given her tattoo sleeves with my best temporary tattoos. I dressed her in tiny Barbie nurse’s shoes, a pink t-shirt dress, and a shiny green florist apron with real pockets. I named her Kimberly, the name I always imagined an older sister would have.
In our private moments we had fun, the two of us.
Years on, I’m still trying to untangle the snarl of femininity in my life: when is it okay to act like a girl? Why do I have such a hard time standing up to men? To what degree are my gender presentation, gender identity, and sexual orientation intertwined?
If there’s a woman who doesn’t struggle with questions like these, I’d love to meet her and have her help me sort them out. Tiny Shoulders proves that Barbie’s still right there with us, trying to figure it out too.