It's been 60 years since Barbie dolls hit shelves; but have they done more damage than good, a new documentary asks

It's been 60 years since Barbie dolls hit shelves; but have they done more damage than good, a new documentary asks
Adriana Karembeu with Barbie dolls dressed by Jewellers (Source : Getty Images)

Generations have played with the Barbie doll and its relevance has never been more questioned than it is today.

The 11.5 inch doll has either been way ahead of her times or left far behind to be even considered applicable in today's world. Exploring the whys and the hows of Barbie cultural resonance since the time of its inception is Hulu's new documentary titled 'Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie'.

The series aired on April 25 and begins with a crisis of Barbie's ever-declining sales in 2015. The situation is grim and it looks like the most recognized doll in the world will be wiped out from the face of earth. Many anti-Barbie groups have been established by feminist groups because let's face it, "you look like a Barbie doll" isn't a compliment anymore and the doll has been accused of setting unrealistic standards of beauty since the day it was born, on March 9, 1959.

Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie who was then managing sales for her husband’s toy-manufacturing company, Mattel Inc. noticed her daughter routinely assigned adult personalities to cut-out paper dolls.

This sparked an idea of a three-dimension grown-up doll, specifically with an adult figure including breasts, possessing adult identities to reflect what they might become. 

However, at that time, the only such doll that existed was a highly sexualized one called the Bild Lilli doll sold to adult men in tobacco shops.

It is not known what the doll was actually used for. It was this controversial doll that laid the prototype for Barbie. Ruth's husband Elliot Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, was skeptical if the doll made any sense to children and their parents. At that time, the only doll available for girls to play with were baby dolls, which they fed and nurtured.

For Ruth, it was so important to have a fully grown woman doll so that girls could channel their ambitions through and with it. In 1959, Mattel introduced a teenage original Barbie in a black and white swimsuit. In 1963, there was a 'Career girl Barbie.' Then in 1965, there came an 'Astronaut Barbie' wearing a metallic jumpsuit and a white helmet, eighteen years before Sally Ride set out for space.  Ambitious Barbie conquered other frontiers of excellence including Barbie for President in 1991. The slogan of Barbie read 'you can be anything.'

This was what Barbie stood for but the embodiment of woman ambition backfired as the tiny doll became a major influence on popular culture and it mattered how she looked and how she dressed.

You had girls wanting to look like a Barbie doll, it was a paramount compliment. When Ruth invented the first Barbie doll, she ensured it wasn't very beautiful. The original Barbie's eyes were downcast and eyeliner was thick. It was only in 1971, Barbie's eyes were redesigned and made to look wide. 

In late 1960s, Barbie got extremely controversial with the 'Slumber Party' edition of the doll, where the weighing machine that came with prescribed the perfect weight, and the doll's bags carried messages such as 'Don't Eat'.

But at that time, Barbie was doing what any other company was doing: reflecting the society. During the same time, an ad by Pepsi asked women should drink low calorie Pepsi as men check them out from glass doors.

Lurching from one controversy to another, the show rolls on to the current crisis zooming on the inside of Mattel HQ in El Segundo, California.

The documentary by Andrea Nevins interviews feminist historians and writers including Gloria Steinem, Amanda Foreman, Peggy Orenstein, and Roxane Gay about their impressions of Barbie dolls.

The focus is on the designers and marketeers attempting to rebrand Barbie’s image by remodeling her appearance; hence comes the story behind Project Dawn, Mattel's secret initiative to introduce Barbie in different shapes and sizes.

The struggle of Kim Culmone, Mattel’s head of Barbie design, as well as the conflict with the rest of the team to redesign Barbie and resolve never-imagined problems with its universal uniformity, becomes a personal journey.

The adversity is challenging but the need for change is imminent. The only way Barbie can survive 21st century is with contradiction. The Mattel employees agree that with Project Dawn, they are contradicting themselves, for the better.

Still from the documentary on Mattel team having a look at Project Dawn Barbies

It isn't the first time the doll's figure is tweaked. In its 59-year-history, the doll has been subjected to breast enlargement, tucked waistlines and distorted feet, only fit for high-heeled shoes.

Barbie's blonde hair and white skin even perpetuated the idea that it was the ideal standard of beauty and that was preached in the 158 countries where Barbie is sold.

When Mattel decided to introduce various skin colors to Barbie, it received negative review including one that stated that Barbie was now "body shaming in all colors."

But Project Dawn is different. Considering all potentially debates around gender, race, and body image, the Barbie designers and marketeers take the sole responsibility of doing something they know should have been done a long time ago.

On the test round when the prototypes of curvier Barbie were introduced to children, the Barbie is mocked for being fat and the child says Barbie looks different but not in a good way.

"Hello, I’m a fat person,” the child mocks in a Barbie voice and others giggle.

The challenges only get real and one of the designers says he now understands why Barbie took so long to change- she is the microcosm of larger debates in the world. These tiny plastic shoulders carry the burden of cultural representation.

It is noteworthy that almost all of Mattel's employee working on the design are women with real stories and are fully aware on what they are doing. Changing Barbie's appearance with Project Dawn is culturally a historic move for all individuals even for Culmone, who was one of the many in line to get married to her partner soon after the legalization of same-sex marriage in May 2008.

So you can sense the joy and excitement when Project Dawn turns out to be successful and the review by TIME magazine is a positive one.

The 1 hour 32 minutes documentary ends on a happy note as parents and children are pleased with Barbie's remake. Statistically, we do not know if the sales picked up but we are assured people still buy the dolls, it could be nostalgia, it could be the wardrobe and it can be all that Barbie is, not just a plastic.

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