“Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” Gives Mattel A Pat On The Back

by Erika W. Smith

With the subtitle Rethinking Barbie and interview subjects including Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, and Andi Zeisler, you’d think Tiny Shoulders would be an interesting exploration of Barbie as a cultural symbol, balancing her (literally) unobtainable body image and her infamous “math class is tough!” saying with a celebration of President Barbie and a discussion of childhood play.

Instead, the new documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie —which premiered at Tribeca FIlm Fest and premieres on Hulu today—is a celebratory look at a recent moment in Barbie history: the launch of the 2016 “Barbie Fashionistas” line, which featured three new Barbie body types, ”curvy,” “petite,” and “tall.” In a too-short discussion of Barbie’s history, director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins touches on a few of Barbie’s controversial moments, but she focuses heavily on the “girl power” angle. The history all leads up to the focus on the 2016 Fashionistas launch, which Nevins frames as a body positive victory—only briefly acknowledging that Mattel was only willing to consider launching the new line in response to dramatically plummeting sales.

Mattel execs both past and present are given far more screen time than Barbie-critical feminists like Steinem and Gay. Many of these execs are passionate, intelligent, interesting women—particularly Vice President of Barbie Design Kim Culmone, who compares her role in redesigning Barbie to the moment she and her wife became one of the first same-sex couples to be married in California. But Tiny Shoulders keeps criticism of Barbie at a minimum—so much so that I was expecting a “sponsored by Mattel” line in the credits. 2/5 

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