Orange Magazine

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

Direction: Andrea Nevins

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The film presents the story of the most well-known doll in the world, Barbie. According to the documentary, 98% of the people in the world know who Barbie is, that is, more than the recognition of U.S. President. But Barbie is not just famous. It is probably the only toy that had such an impact on culture and society globally and was the subject of so intense debates. While the employees at the headquarters of Mattel (the American company that produces Barbie) consider themselves as feminists, the second feminist wave posed a tough criticism to the concept of the toy for undermining gender equality.

Ruth Handler, the first president of Mattel, got the idea of Barbie from Bild Lili doll, a sexualized joke toy sold to men in tobacco shops. Before Barbie, girls were playing with baby dolls. Through this play, they were adopting nurturing roles and perceiving the female identity as limited in domestic life. Therefore, in 1959, when Handler decided to create Barbie, her intention was to create a toy that would represent women’s emancipation. Barbie’s various versions usually portray professions, like Barbie-astronaut, Barbie-flight attendant etc. In 2016, Mattel created the President version. The doll is sold with other toys, like cars and clothes. Barbie represents a wealthy independent woman that occupies a job which used to be only for men. While in the early versions of Barbie its eyes were designed in such a way that she was looking down, after 1971, the doll was given a straight-ahead gaze which represented self confidence. Mattel argues that girls can project upon Barbie their dreams about what they would like to be.

On the other hand, feminists argued that Barbie reproduces sexist stereotypes and the masculine perspective of woman. For Gloria Steinem Barbie represents everything women didn’t want to be and were told to be. Feminists criticized Barbie not only for representing consumption and capitalism but also for its standard characteristics, that is, the blond hair, the blue eyes and the thin body. These characteristics are interpreted by girls as the beauty they supposed to have when they will grow up. Therefore, growing up with different characteristics they can’t feel self confidence. In addition, playing with Barbie, girls learn to regard beauty and not mind as the means for a woman to achieve her goals. Finally, as most of the dolls are designed with white color, Mattel is accused for supporting racial discrimination.

The second and third wave of feminism caused big damage to Mattel’s earnings and public image. As a result, the company recently tried to adjust to society changes. In an effort to include realism and diversity in Barbie’s concept, its designers decided to reconstruct the doll and introduced three dissimilar versions: Petite, Tall and Curvy. In the documentary, the new Barbies were showed to the feminists that were interviewed. Roxane Gay laughed but stressed that it’s better than nothing. With an ironic tone, she added “we should approve it, if you don’t encourage them they ll do nothing”. Gloria Steinem asserted that two means can change things: Vote and money. The second forced Mattel to change.

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About This Edition

Thessaloniki Documentary Festival
,
Mar. 2019