Film & Television

‘Tiny Shoulders’; or, ‘The Adventures of
Movie Star Barbie’

I’ve self-identified as a feminist since third grade, when my best friend’s mother (Barbara Seaman, renowned author of Free and Female and The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, and my greatest inspiration even then to become a writer) allowed us to play quietly in a corner while she entertained Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Alix Kates Schulman, among other leaders of the women’s movement. Later that year, I helped campaign for Shirley Chisholm.

My own mother wasn’t politically active, and I was disappointed in her. In hindsight, of course, I recognize that she was living a feminist life rather than protesting a feminist ideal. Our family’s main (and sometimes sole) breadwinner, due to my father’s debilitating health issues, my mother was too busy supporting our family to march on Fifth Avenue. I eventually came to realize that while my activist heroines influenced my ideology, my mother gave me the confidence to believe I could succeed in a man’s world with determination and hard work.

Nevertheless, as a fledgling feminist, and desperate to be part of the Amazonian sisterhood to which I was often exposed, I saw injustice everywhere: in magazines, on TV commercials, in the health and beauty aisles of our local Pathmark, in Lynda Carter’s see-through bathing suit on Battle of the Network Stars, and in the toy department at the two-story Woolworth around the corner. Walk down the girls’ aisle and you would drown in a sea of pink. I quickly abandoned my own Barbie dolls (I actually owned Casey and Francie, Barbie’s younger and slightly less curvy cousins) as I realized that the weight of centuries of patriarchy rested on those tiny shoulders.

I was determined that any future daughter of mine would entertain herself with gender-neutral toys (even though I certainly didn’t know that expression yet).

Fast forward some twenty-five years and it became obvious that parenting principles conceived prior to being an actual parent hold very little water. My daughter (who, to my chagrin, spent the bulk of her preschool years in elaborate hairdos and refusing to wear any color but pink) began her own Barbie collection at the tender age of three. She received them as birthday presents from friends and as special treats (yes, from me) on long shopping expeditions.

She earned one especially elaborate Barbie after an especially grueling weekend. One day, her preschool teacher warned us that she needed to catch up to the other kids in, shall we say, the toilet training department. I found a book that promised success in 48 hours or less. The key was to impress upon the child the social stigma that would follow if he or she didn’t master using the potty. The book warned against pleading, positive reinforcement, and bribery. It was tough love without the love. After her first (anticipated) accident, I complied with the method word-for-word. “I’m ashamed of you,” I told her calmly but firmly. “What would your friends say if they knew you didn’t know how to use the potty?” She turned to me with enormous tears in her tiny blue eyes and, shaking ever so slightly, said “I no want you be shamed of me.”

I immediately threw the book away and pulled out a large glass bowl of M&Ms and a Royal Princess Barbie, both of which I propped up above the bathtub in sight of the toilet. From then on, she received an M&M every time she successfully went “number one,” and the Barbie when she finally went “number two.” True to that horrid book’s promise, she was potty trained within 48 hours.

Her collection grew quickly; eventually she had some 20 or 30 Barbies, and 3 or 4 Kens (my husband and I used to call the Barbies “sister wives” and the collection “Barbie: Big Love Edition”). She called the Barbies “Mommies” (I admit that some little part of me was flattered by that, although I did find out later that she needed glasses). The smaller Kelly dolls (sold as “Barbie’s little sister”) were their “Sweeties.”

My daughter, like so many of her peers, outgrew her Barbies long before she became “woke” enough to reject them as demeaning to women. (And, for the record, my daughter wrote her college application essay on why she is a feminist and recently marched with a sign that read, “Girls’ clothing in school is more regulated than guns in America.” Yes, I’m proud.)

Without argument, Barbie promotes an unrealistic, even unobtainable, body — large breasts, an infinitesimal waist, and acres of leg. Her impossible measurements approximate a figure of 36-18-33. Scientists have estimated that a real-life Barbie would be 5’9″ and weigh 110 pounds. The average American woman is 5’4″ and weighs 166. Most of Barbie’s skimpy outfits, regardless of what they’re called, range from “Barbie Stripper” to “Barbie Pole Dancer” to “Barbie Swimsuit Model” to “Barbie Drag Queen.” Her feet are forever locked in a cramped and probably painful high-heel arch. Over the years, Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, has made numerous other missteps. In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie asserted, “Math class is tough. Let’s go shopping!” By some (many) counts, Barbie is one giant step backward for women’s rights.

Has a piece of plastic even been so politically charged?

No, argues filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins (Oscar nominee: Best Documentary Short Subject for Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies) in her documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie. This interesting and entertaining 90-minute film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is available to stream on Hulu, does a remarkable job of tracing Barbie’s roots (feminist and otherwise) and chronicling a pivotal moment in her history when, in 2016, Mattel introduced a new line of “Fashionista Barbies” with diverse facial features, hair and skin tones, and, yes finally, body types.

The movie features several Mattel executives, notably Kim Culmone, Vice President and Head of Barbie Design; and Michelle Chidoni, Vice President and “Barbie’s Publicist;” intercut with feminist icons Steinem, Amanda Foreman, Peggy Orenstein and Roxane Gay. As you would expect, the two groups present disparate schools of thought. As Steinem remembers, “Barbie was everything we didn’t want to be.” Nevins does an admirable job balancing the doll’s pros and the cons.

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  • Jo Shafer June 5, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    I never liked the Barbie doll concept because this doll depicts such an unrealistic role model totally incorrect for the very young (age 3!) girl. Thus, I never gave my own daughter one, either, yet she played with them at friends’ homes and begged for one herself. Instead, I helped her collect “old-fashioned” dolls dressed in period costumes. If only The American Girl series had been invented back then, but fortunately they’ve been around enough for all my granddaughters’ pleasure. Yes, they can play dress up and tea parties with their dolls, but they also learn American history along the way because of the books that accompany each doll’s historical period. Blessed be that inventor!