Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie Movie Poster Image
Comprehensive docu about iconic, controversial doll.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 92 minutes

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Shows the history of the Barbie doll, how it has evolved over time, and moments when the creation and marketing of various iterations of Barbie could be progressive for its time or part of bigger issues surrounding gender, equal rights, body image, and race in American society. Employees who work on Project Dawn address the criticisms head-on and work to create Barbies of different body shapes and racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel and creator of the Barbie doll in 1959, was at the top of her field in a time when women had limited options in terms of career choices and advancement within those careers. The women and men involved in Project Dawn show a deep understanding of why Barbie has been a lightning rod of criticism, as well as the positive associations of girls' experiences playing with Barbies while growing up; they're shown to be committed to getting the reboot of Barbie right, to compensate for past issues related to body types, gender roles, and racial/ethnic diversity. Feminists including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and essayist Roxanne Gay, are shown to be instrumental in raising concerns about Mattel historically focusing on selling Barbies that were white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and thin.


Some talk of the debate between male toy manufacturers, who felt that Barbie shouldn't have breasts, and the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler, who insisted that she should.


One use of "s--t." 


While Barbie is an iconic toy -- the documentary claims that 98 percent of the world can recognize her -- it's still a toy that's manufactured and promoted by the Mattel Corporation. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Old photographs of people smoking cigarettes. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie is a documentary about the past, present, and future of one of the world's most iconic dolls. Much of the documentary is centered on Project Dawn, a Barbie revamp that attempted to address concerns over the potential negative impact of the traditionally white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, thin Barbie on girls' self-image and self-esteem. The film also looks at the decades'-long history of the Barbie doll, from the highs -- a progressive-for-her-time toy manufacturer who created Barbie in the face of strong resistance from male counterparts, the "Miss Astronaut" Barbie from 1965 -- to the lows: the Teen Talk Barbie who said things like "Math is hard!" and "Let's go shopping!" and a diet-obsessed Barbie whose scale always read "110" and had a sticker that said "Don't eat." There's mention of an historical debate about whether Barbie should have breasts and one use of "s--t." Offering a comprehensive look at the iconic toy, the movie should inspire discussion about how toys can be both a reflection of -- and a driving force behind -- social norms and beliefs. It's also likely to inspire conversation about body image and diversity.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent Written byChristine H. October 27, 2018

Great conversation starter!

I watched this film on Hulu with our 11-year-old daughter. I was surprised that she stayed engaged for the entire film (we viewed it in one sitting). I had to e... Continue reading

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What's the story?

TINY SHOULDERS: RETHINKING BARBIE takes a comprehensive look at the Barbie doll at a pivotal point in the brand's decades-long existence. At a time when Barbie sales have been dropping and feminists and social critics have been taking manufacturer Mattel to task for selling a doll that fails to show the diversity of women's body types, hair and eye colors, and backgrounds, Mattel's designers and marketers of Barbie undertake Project Dawn. Project Dawn (which first became public knowledge in early 2016) is an ambitious attempt to address these concerns and create a far more diverse line of Barbies. The documentary also delves into Barbie's past, going back to her beginnings in 1959 and the moments when the brand was remarkably progressive for its time, as well as when it was disturbingly regressive. Against a backdrop of the 2017/2018 political climate and the #MeToo movement, those involved with Project Dawn come up against tremendous pressure to get the relaunch right as they await the response to the initial release of the updated Barbies, as revealed on the cover of Time Magazine

Is it any good?

This smart documentary takes a comprehensive look at the iconic doll's past and present. What's remarkable about Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie is how much ground is covered in such a short amount of time. While tracing the highs and lows of Barbie's history, the movie hinges around Project Dawn, which is the most ambitious reboot in Barbie's history. In 2015 and 2016, the Mattel designers and marketers involved in the project were tasked with addressing the considerable drop in Barbie sales during the 2010s while also answering the longstanding concerns of feminists and social critics about Barbie's lack of diversity.

No matter what your views are on Barbie, Tiny Shoulders reveals so much about the doll's complicated history. The fact that it was progressive to release a (relatively) anatomically correct female doll in 1959, in the face of strong opposition, shows how Barbie has been a lightning rod of controversy since her inception. The times when Mattel showed advanced thinking around Barbie -- releasing a "Miss Astronaut" Barbie in 1965, for instance, nearly 20 years before the first woman went into space -- are counterbalanced by the notorious "Teen Talk" Barbie from the '90s (which said things like "Math is hard!" and "Let's go shopping!"). It's an impressive feat to convey so much history, back story, and diverging views on Barbie in a feature-length film, which is what makes this such a timely, worthwhile documentary. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how documentaries present facts and opinions. What did you learn about Barbie from Tiny Shoulders? Did your opinion of the doll change after watching this film? Why or why not?

  • How does the movie address issues related to diversity, gender equality, and body image? Do you think these are all things that toy makers need to consider when creating their products?

  • How does the documentary show what was at stake, personally and professionally, for those working to come up with the newest line of Barbie products? 

  • After learning more about Barbie, do you think she's a positive role model? Why or why not?

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