Why Barbie Is So Much More Than Just a Doll With a Controversial Figure

Barbie got a makeover in 2016, and a new documentary details how it came about. (Photo: Courtesy Hulu)

"We're late. We should have [changed Barbie] a long time ago," said Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie at Mattel, in the new Hulu documentary, "Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie."

I agree with Culmone — I'm one of the many frustrated women who grew up playing with Barbies who has repeatedly called for the company to update the weirdly proportioned doll. Mattel finally did that when they introduced petite, tall and curvy versions of Barbie in 2016. At the time, I was begrudging with my praise of the changes.

But the new documentary makes a strong case for walking a mile in someone else's shoes to understand their choices, as well as the myriad challenges of change. The film takes us inside the design and promotion machine at Mattel, and begins when the Barbie team first pursues the idea of seriously modifying Barbie's body with a new design.

It was fascinating to watch the internal dynamics of the women who work on Barbie — and it's an almost entirely female team, which was a surprise. It was also gratifying to see that like so much in life, our own experiences do reflect how we see the world. Culmone, the chief designer behind the Barbie brand, isn't the size and shape of a Barbie. She talked about how she grew up playing with the dolls and how it affected her as both a little girl and now as a gay woman who understands how important representation is.

A designer works on a Barbie head.
The documentary reminds viewers that Barbie is made and designed by human beings who can make her look however they want. She is a purposefully designed toy that can change with the times. (Photo: Courtesy Hulu)

Most of Team Barbie wanted to modernize the doll, but not everyone agreed with Culmone that the time was nigh. Hearing the reasons why Michelle Chidoni, vice president of communications for Barbie, thought Barbie should stay as she was, was enlightening. Mostly it seemed there was a lot of fear about changing such an iconic brand, especially negative reactions. Chidoni later changed her mind, but hearing from a young woman who had a more conservative view of the doll was thought-provoking. We don't often get to hear respectful, nuanced conversations between change-makers and change-resisters, and listening in on that aspect of the story was one of my favorite parts of the documentary.

There were real challenges to making the Barbie-body changes. I never thought of the complications in designing Barbie dolls of various sizes — what about sharing clothes and shoes among dolls, and how she fits in her townhouse or her cool convertible?

"A lot of people see the product on the shelf and think: 'Just change it!'" said Culmone in the film. "But it's a huge operational undertaking. You're talking about a system of play that for 56 years has existed in simplicity — meaning the clothes fit, everybody fits in the car, the elevator. But when you are talking about a doll that is taller or a doll that is curvier, our entire system of play has to shift."

But shift it did. It had to — Mattel had waited too long already, and sales were tanking as parents turned their back on the doll. There's a reason second-wave feminists literally chanted "I am not a Barbie doll!" when they protested. Barbie represents a lot more than just a doll when you consider that more than 90 percent of girls growing up in America have at least one of them. Hearing from feminist leaders about their thoughts on Barbie broke up the narrative of how the Mattel team made their changes.

"Barbie is this icon that we have in our toy box. Mattel perpetuated this image and has done so for decades, and unapologetically so. And they've resisted critique," said author Roxane Gay.

Barbie's complicated creator

Ruth Handler and the rest of the Mattel team in the early days of the company.
'There was no one else like me,' said Ruth Handler (middle) of what drove her ideas in the early days at Mattel. (Photo: Courtesy Hulu)

And then there's the curiously complicated woman behind the original Barbie: Ruth Handler cofounded Mattel with her husband. She was an unusual woman for her time. She pushed hard to get Barbie dolls into the world — at the time there were no grown-up fashion dolls for kids to play with, only baby dolls. Handler saw Barbie as a way for a little girl to imagine the kind of woman she wanted to be in a time when being a Mrs. meant leaving the public sphere.

Handler did the opposite, as detailed in the documentary, running Mattel alongside her husband and a third partner. She was, in a word, ambitious.

"I don't know what was driving me, but I needed to prove myself from the day I was born," said Handler. In fact, she was frustrated by many of the very things that Barbie was later accused of promoting. "I loved being a mother. But I was fit to be tied staying at home, I hated that. Knowing how to cook, and keep a good house. Oh, sh**," she said of expectations for women when she was young, "It was awful."

But Barbie turned into a juggernaut, earning Mattel millions, and whatever influence Handler may have had was overshadowed by other ideas. Along with making the toy company lots of money, Barbie became a cultural touchstone for most of America's women, and not a few men as well.

Even Culmone admits Barbie is powerful, which is probably why she took the job of changing her so seriously. "Barbie is the only doll that can sit front-row at a fashion show AND be the subject of feminist theory classes AND create such polarizing dialog in culture," she said.

"Tiny Shoulders" begins streaming on April 27 only on Hulu.