Andrea Nevins' Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie just celebrated world premiere at Tribeca
Hulu continues its foray into original documentaries with a new film on a toy with ardent fans and equally ardent critics.
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, directed by Andrea Nevins and produced by Cristan Crocker, began streaming on the service Friday, days after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary zeroes in on Barbie at a critical moment in the doll's life--as manufacturer Mattel weighed the biggest redesign of its iconic creation ever, in the wake of a troubling sales slump.
When we caught them they were at kind of a rock bottom. They really felt like they had to rethink the doll from the ground up.
Mattel had faced unrelenting pressure from feminists and other critics who felt Barbie's impossible measurements -- long, slender legs and hourglass waist -- promoted an unrealistic and harmful body image. The criticism was somewhat ironic given that, as the filmmakers document, Barbie began as a kind of proto-feminist figure, a career-minded single young woman.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Nevins and Crocker shortly before they brought their film to Tribeca.
How did the film project come about?
Andrea Nevins: [Mattel] put a group of feminist women -- many of them mothers -- together in a room to try to figure out how to reinvent this doll given the changing role of women today. And that sounded like a fascinating lens to look at where we are as women in the 21st century. So that was the impetus, to look at who women are and what progress we've made in the women's movement.
Cristan Crocker: Or lack of progress. We obviously had no idea when we started this almost three years ago that it would come out at this time with everything that's happening in the world so it's pretty amazing for us.
The film does seem particularly timely in light of the #MeToo movement and the belated recognition of barriers to equality faced by women.
Nevins: Without a doubt more relevant but in a different way because I think that when we started there was a sense in the world that we were going to have our first woman president. And so we were thinking, 'Ah, progress has happened. How is Barbie going to reflect that?' Then the world changed rather dramatically and in the process we got to watch the team of incredibly strong, dynamic women at Mattel try and figure out what story to tell, what Barbie's story was going to be for this next generation of girls.
Nevins: When we caught them they [Mattel] were at kind of a rock bottom. They really felt like they had to rethink the doll from the ground up... so that was a really fascinating moment to catch them in. They let us in to film that and they had never done that before. They were taking a risk. They were taking all kinds of risks in that moment and we got to film it.
Why do you think Mattel allowed you such access?
Nevins: I think it was a really weirdly right place, right time. There was a team in place that felt that allowing light and air into the building was going to be very important for them in an honest reappraisal of the doll and we happened to be there at that very moment.
Many see Barbie as a tyrannical creature that actually harms girls by twisting their self-image. But as we see in the film, Barbie actually began as a quasi-feminist invention.
Crocker: It was a surprise to us and there's a lot of things in the film actually that people are going to be very surprised by. We track that evolution and what happened and what the intention was of [Barbie creator] Ruth Handler, so we found the whole thing very fascinating and think that the viewers will also.
Ruth Handler herself really was a feminist figure.
Nevins: She was a feminist before the word feminist had actually been invented.
Crocker: She couldn't even describe herself as that until later in her life. There wasn't even the definition out there for her to describe it that way but later in life she definitely identified herself with that and really blazed a trail for so many women and it's so great to go into Mattel now and see how many smart women are in there and committed women and passionate women.
You capture the process as Mattel created Barbies with different body types and then the launched the new line of dolls. How have the redesigned dolls done?
Nevins: They've done incredibly well. Doll sales have grown consistently since the launch of this redesigned doll.
Did you play with Barbies growing up?
Nevins: My Barbie was a strong woman among a bunch of G.I. Joes. I believe she was an early Malibu Barbie when, as a New Yorker, Malibu was about as exotic as it could come.
Crocker: I had the brunette Barbie -- being from Southern California and being a brunette [myself]. She didn't spend a lot of time at the beach. She was much more into her different careers and fashion.
Andrea, you have a daughter. Do you allow her to play with Barbies?
Nevins: I was not of the belief that Barbie was going to be damaging to her. I will say that when she was given a Bratz doll at her birthday party [once] I never allowed her to open it and just took it immediately out to the garbage can and threw it in the trash. I just thought that Barbie was pretty neutral and I liked that kind of open-ended play. So whether it was trolls in the garden or building castles or imagining gnomes, anything that encouraged that kind of play was something that was okay in my house. And she's turned out to be quite a feminist and activist... It clearly did not do any damage.
And Cristan you have three boys.
Crocker: Boys do play with Barbies. Mine did not. For them it was more about sticks. For me Barbie was always something that I could imagine or aspire to. My sister and I had Barbies, my cousin had Barbies and we would swap outfits and we would just imagine and she was always a ton of fun for me which is a big reason why I was so excited to be able to delve into this world. When we first got the opportunity to go into Mattel it was like going to visit Willy Wonka. It was just this magical place, going into the warehouses where they have all the dolls stored.
Hulu is getting more into original documentaries now. They've released Becoming Bond and Too Funny to Fail, and the Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week. How has it been to work with them?
Nevins: They've been amazing partners to us and are so enthusiastic to be moving in this direction. We couldn't be happier to be partners with them.
Crocker: They got it. They got our story from the first second we talked to them about it which was really encouraging. We just had a whole mind meld with them.
How do you feel about premiering the film at Tribeca?
Nevins: It's our second world premiere at Tribeca [after 2015's Play It Forward]. We adore them. [Tribeca co-founder] Jane Rosenthal has been a huge supporter of us and of this documentary in particular from its inception so the fact that we get to go there and be there again to launch our film is incredibly exciting. Also I feel like fashion is such a New York story and Barbie likes her fashion.
There are several fashion docs premiering at Tribeca, including one on Alexander McQueen and another on André Leon Talley.
Nevins: I think we're in very good company that way.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.