The Hulu documentary “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” tells the story of how the controversial doll was created and why, after years of criticism, she got a radical makeover.
Selling something as well as shaping culture is something they're aware of every step of the way. That's a really complicated line to toe. Every decision they make has repercussions for little girls, for mothers, for feminists and for women. I can't think of another brand that has that level of complication.
Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot, imagined Barbie in the 1950s as an alternative to the baby doll. She saw her daughter Barbie play with paper dolls imagining different stories through that play that she couldn't do with baby dolls. But neither her husband nor the male designers at the company believed in her idea.
When John Horn spoke with Nevins and Crocker, the filmmakers discuss what Ruth Handler hoped to do, how Barbie became a flashpoint for feminists and how Mattel sought to answer her critics.
On the challenges Ruth Handler faced convincing her husband and other men at Mattel that Barbie with was a good idea:
NEVINS: There's the classic story of the Sisyphean task that it is for us as women to put an idea out into the world that we feel incredibly strongly about. She was doing it the early 50s. What does she do? She does not take no for an answer. She goes to Europe and sees a doll that is very similar to the kind of doll she was imagining. She bring that home and hands it to an engineer -- a rocket engineer -- and says figure this out. How do we make this? And three years later it was on the shelves.
On the European doll – made for a male audience – that Ruth Handler modeled Barbie after:
NEVINS: This doll was a doll that was apparently meant as a turn-on for men and we're not entirely sure what men were supposed to do with her. Were they supposed to sit her in front of their car? Was she one of those things that sometimes truck drivers used to hang in their rear view mirror? We're not entirely sure. However, she was beautifully dressed. One of the things that Ruth really loved was the fact that her clothes were so finely made. So she takes this doll home — it's definitely sexualized — and the male [Mattel] designers look at it and say, there's no way on earth that a parent is going to buy this sexy doll with breasts for their child.
She just keeps on pushing and saying, I believe that little girls are looking for an example, other than baby dolls. Because before that, little girls had only been playing with baby dolls so they were looking down at an infant's face and that was as far as their imaginations could go. They were going to be mothers. This was a way of imagining yourself as an adult. As Ruth says, there was no adult that any little girl knew that didn't have breasts. So get over it, men.
On the modern-day internal debates at Mattel over changing Barbie's body shape:
NEVINS: There was a lot of question about — and there always has been about Barbie — is she just too unrealistic a form? Does she set up for girls a beauty mythology and a white supremacy that is really ridiculous in our current society? However, there was another side that believe that a doll is a doll and should never be thought of as anything but a piece of plastic — a toy to dress. To that point, it was fascinating to learn that one of the reasons that they held on to that particular body form is because part of the pattern of play is that a mother would pass on her clothes to her daughter. And her daughter would pass on her doll's clothes to her daughter nd there was a magical togetherness through generations that they didn't want to mess with... But the pushback became greater and greater and finally Kim Culmone [VP of Barbie design at Mattel], who is one of our main characters, says, we just can't tolerate this anymore. The world looks different. Barbie has to look different.
On how the filmmakers managed Mattel's reticent over allowing them unprecedented and enviable access to Mattel's process:
CROCKER: We had to continue to fight for that access. We would have times when it would ebb and flow and it's a testament to Andrea's tenacity and desire to tell this story and also our combined love of wanting to have the access that you mention envying and realizing what an amazing opportunity that was that kept us at it. And the reason we continued. We didn't give up because there definitely were times that it was incredibly challenging for us to maintain that access.
NEVINS: They would become afraid of showing what the process was. They were afraid both because of competitors — the toy industry is incredibly competitive. It's incredibly easy for another company to swoop in, take an idea and get it to market faster and then you lose all of your research, development and product. But in addition, they just were unaccustomed to allowing outside eyeballs in. It's also very vulnerable. You put yourself in a very vulnerable position when you allow people in to see where you have fear. They were incredibly frightened.
On why the women executives at Mattel were attuned to any criticism they might endure –by the filmmakers or the culture– for what they did with Barbie:
NEVINS: One of the things we found fascinating when we were looking at this doll is that it mirrored the fact that women get lambasted for almost anything they do. We were filming during the period when Hillary Clinton was running for president and we were listening on the radio to the fact that, if she changed her hair color or wore a different color suit, that would be a subject of conversation. There's nothing that women do that isn't a subject of conversation. And not just a subject of conversation but a subject of criticism. It wasn't only the doll that got that criticism. They [at Mattel] knew that women and their women would be a subject of criticism. So they were very protective of them.
I think what happened after a year and a half of filming is that they started to understand that we were not interested in tearing down these women. We were interested in telling their story. As that became clearer, they became more willing to let us in.
'Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie' is available on Hulu now.