Hulu's 'Tiny Shoulders' Documentary Explores Six Decades of Barbie

Barbie is only a doll. Or is she? In her six decades as a plaything, Barbie has become a fashion icon, a lightning rod, and an evergreen topic among feminists. But there’s no denying she’s also… just a doll. Whatever people—whether they’re eight or 80—project onto her, it’s through the prism of their own thoughts and feelings. However, that’s not to say the folks at Mattel don’t care. They do in fact care very much, and they strive to keep up with the times.

Hulu’s Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie is a deep-dive documentary into what Barbie means in our culture and how this 11.5 inch, Zelig-like plastic idol has made her mark, for better or worse. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, the film features brand-new interviews with Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, Peggy Orenstein, Mattel insiders, and cultural historians. (In case you’re wondering, Steinem is not a fan.)

The film is at its best when it shows the history of Barbie, what she was modeled after—you might be shocked!—and how difficult it was to bring the very first non-baby doll to the masses. When Ruth Handler, former President of Mattel, pitched the idea to the board, there was massive push-back. The doll’s actual design was the brainchild of missile engineer-turned-toy designer Jack Ryan, and together he and Handler worked night and day for the big debut at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. But the voluptuous doll was not an immediate success. When Disney introduced The Mickey Mouse Club children’s TV show, Mattel invested heavily in television advertising and the rest is history.

The executives and designers of Mattel walk us through the evolution of Barbie, taking us back to the 60s when she was an astronaut, a businesswoman, and a rock star. In 1966, the Francine doll made its debut and the following year the “colored” version was launched; this doll was touted Barbie’s “MODern cousin”. (But she still had European features.) Christie, Barbie’s black friend was released in 1968 and discontinued in 2015. We also see how Barbie’s face—eyes were downcast at first, then the gaze was raised—and physique has morphed to reflect the times as well.

The second half of Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what it’s like behind the scenes at Mattel’s headquarters in El Segundo, CA. You’d think working at a toy business would be fun… but then again, it is a business and they take it very seriously. Director Nevins shines the spotlight on the creation of a whole new line of Barbies, with “Curvy Barbie” getting the lion’s share of attention. Is she too fat? Not fat enough? Is the thigh-gap really an issue? And so on. It all leads to her unveiling in a TIME cover story, and we watch the nail-biting suspense as employees of Mattel check Twitter for disparaging comments or negative feedback. They’ve worked long and hard for this moment and are frazzled to the last nerve! Here’s where the documentary could have used some editing. It’s almost like two different films from the first half to the second.

Barbie Millicent Roberts from (fictional) Willows, Wisconsin has certainly made her name known and is more famous than many living idols—and while Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie is one of the most comprehensive docs to date, it does get a bit tedious towards the end. It’s definitely more for diehard fans who want to know every detail of this larger-than-life icon.

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