Barbie has been a controversial figure since her inception. Before Barbie, little girls played with dolls that looked like babies. These dolls encouraged nurturing, mothering instincts. But then along came Barbie, a doll that had been “sexualized” with large breasts and hips, a distinctly adult doll that inspired little girls to dream about their own futures, to project their own aspirations.

Despite her figure, Barbie has always been somewhat of a feminist figure, albeit one based on conspicuous consumption. She held jobs that real-life women were still dreaming about. She wasn’t saddled with kids. She drove her own car and owned her own home, independently, without the help of Ken, who was little more than another accessory.

No matter how many astronaut Barbies existed, she was still tall, blonde, blue-eyed, thin, with impossible, top-heavy measurements. Sleepover Barbie came with a scale permanently stuck at 110lbs and a diet book that simply said “Don’t eat.” Needless to say, real-life feminists could never quite embrace her, even as their own daughters flocked to toy stores to buy her up.

Tiny Shoulders documents the 2016 launch of a line of different-sized Barbies, including tall, petite, and curvy. Curvy Barbie had a thicker waist and no thigh gap. It seems like a no-brainer now, but for the people working at Mattel, it was ulcer-inducing times. Would feminists finally be appeased? Would they be derided for waiting too long? Would children embrace a “fat” Barbie, one that didn’t fit into the outfits they might already own? They were anxious to steer the narrative but were wise enough to know that social media would own them – and that a Time cover article would largely dictate the early adoption or lack thereof.

Barbie has never been just a toy. She’s an icon, with a place in our culture. Even Gloria Steinem has a thing or two to say about her in this doc. Director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins looks at Barbie’s reinvention from every angle, seemingly missing nothing. This is a moment in time worth documenting, and she has. And it also turns the tables on Barbie’s critics. Yes, this move was probably long overdue, but seeing things from the business side makes us realize what a gutsy move this truly was, with possible million-dollar repercussions.

Barbie will always have it just a little tougher than most, if not all, of her fellow toys just by virtue of who she is, what she represents, and what we project on to her. Today she reflects a greater diversity, and not only is that worth applauding, I also think she deserves the careful consideration granted by Nevins and crew.

Thursday, May 3, 6:45 PM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Friday, May 4, 10 AM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday, May 6, 10 AM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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