TFF 2018 – Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie – Interview with director andrea nevins

Sometimes even a teenage fashion icon has to shift her place in the world, resist passé pressures to conform, and embrace a brand new runway for life! Yes, she’s the one and only, never aging, controversial, global legend: Barbara Millicent Roberts, a.k.a. Barbie. Love her, resent her — emulate her, distrust her — she’s, nonetheless, the uber-famous complicated subject of a refreshingly captivating Hulu original documentary, by whip-smart filmmaker Andrea Nevins, who shares that she wanted to make a film that “would say something striking about where we are as women today.”

Born in 1959, as a brainstorm of feminist-forward Mattel entrepreneur Ruth Handler, Barbie was originally inspired by the racy German pin-up doll, Bild Lilli, mainly collected there, by men; but meant to be subversive in a new American context.  Barbie quickly became the coveted toy that little girls (and boys) all over the world, could place their dreams, goals and wishes on, during playtime. At a time when domesticity was revered across class and color lines, playing the role of a good housekeeping wife was expected, and little girls were encouraged to burp their plastic baby dolls — in preparation for all that their world had to offer — Barbie tore the doors off the room, jumping onto the scene with a new jet-setting agenda.

Trailblazing, professional Barbie could do it all, and have it all: she could work, travel, exercise, date, have her own house, drive, entertain, pose for the camera, star in movie classics, land on the moon, run for president, and more! At times, she could assume different ethnicities, and colors. Oh, and her endless wardrobe with accessories! … However, her idealized, tiny-waist figure (likely: 36-18-33), and her generally Nordic/Eurocentric features (even across races!?), began alarming parents and critics alike — fearing the carefree teen model could inspire anything from self-hatred to dysmorphia to extreme narcissism.  By the 2000s, parents were no longer interested in bringing unrealistic and potentially harmful standards of beauty into their households for their children; similarly, girls stopped clamoring for doll that largely didn’t look like them. The result: thinning popularity and weakening sales for over a decade… The upshot: an inspired team at Mattel, in 2016, lovingly creates the Fashionista line (aka Project Dawn).

Andrea Nevins’ probing documentary cleverly distills this storied history of America’s sweetheart, across decades; unpacks the thorny issues surrounding the doll’s “perfect” image; and reimagines her svelte look, through the lens of a passionate team of developers pressed to makeover Barbie to reflect a more realistic, body-positive, diverse world of today. Simultaneously, TINY SHOULDERS explores unpredictable waves and breakthroughs in feminist thought that have contoured how Barbie is viewed; urging a reinvention of her, that could finally embrace a multiplicity of shapes, hair-textures, muscularity, skin-tones and ethnic features. She’s a Barbie for 2018 and beyond, whose thigh gap is finally not a requirement.

Through her camera’s lens, director Nevins contemplates, “How do we women renegotiate our relationship with beauty and femininity when it’s no longer about our survival?” Indeed, it’s a totally key question in today’s #TimesUp world, where roles, models, and standards are being questioned and reinvigorated, for equality, equitability, and bias, from both the outside forces and within. We’ll let Nevins’s superbly confident movie — and a freshly, fiercely evolved Barbie — try to show us a piece of way! … Get ON Barbie’s new runway!

Currently playing to excited audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival, TINY SHOULDERS: RETHINKING BARBIE debuts on Hulu, April 27th!

By LISA COLLINS

LISA COLLINS:  While working on TINY SHOULDERS, did you speak with many artists (stylists, photographers, etc.) — or people in other careers — who were influenced by Barbie, and her whole professional persona?

ANDREA NEVINS:  Yes, but unpacking this is another documentary. Barbie inspires so much for so many. It’s far deeper than I ever imagined, and the art and careers she fomented is astonishing. I can’t think of another modern object that has incited so much creative work.

LC:  How did you connect with this project, featuring one of the world’s most buzzed-about, ageless fashion icons!?

AN:  A friend of mine, Julia Pistor, and I were talking at a dinner one night about the massive wall of ideas and connections about women and female culture that she and her colleagues had put together, as they were beginning to rethink Barbie for the next generation. She said it was not unlike the obsessive, genius, visual connections of Carrie Mathison, the lead character in the TV series Homeland, who was trying to connect the world of terrorists. I knew I wanted to film that. I was sure it would say something striking about where we are as women today.

LC:  Do you believe that, in particular, it took a woman’s vision (American businesswoman Ruth Handler’s) to bring Barbie to life, so successfully? How was her input essential its development?

AN:  I don’t believe this doll could have been invented by a man, particularly in 1959. The female hero’s journey at that time was the quest to become a wife! There was no other narrative. Barbie was not only a career woman, but you might notice she never got married or had children. Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, became a captain of industry in a sea of men. Barbie was her way of allowing girls to imagine a world that was still unattainable for most women. The doll allowed girls see it, because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

LC:  Do you feel that ambivalence still lingers around Barbie today? How would you like this film to open a space for new discussions, visions of Barbie?

AN:  Part of the lingering ambivalence about Barbie is because there’s a lingering ambivalence about femininity and the roles of women in society. How do we women renegotiate our relationship with beauty and femininity when it’s no longer about our survival? I think the change in Barbie’s body that we document in the film was inspired, in part, because women’s power has increased just enough that we women can now demand to be appreciated beyond the very constricted patriarchal definitions of beauty. Discuss!!

LC:  You give a special nod to the racy German doll, Bild Lilli — were you surprised to learn that the culture was fine with ‘men’ owning and showcasing these dolls?

AN:  The Bild Lili was just plain weird, but not really surprising. It was meant to sell newspapers to men. Using women’s bodies and sexuality to sell things is really no better now than it was in the ‘50s. What’s amazing is that Ruth Handler was able to flip that plastic figurine from an object of female objectification to an object of female empowerment. No man believed that she could do that, and she did!

LC:  Your film shows these terrific interstitials, where we’re seeing Barbie being put together, or painted; or in formation rows on a shelf. Can you talk about some of your set up/logistics to film on a small scale? Your aesthetics going in?

AN:  Thank you for noticing! We decided to shoot in 4k so we could really unpack the doll from her baggage, all the stuff we project on to her, and see her as the piece of plastic that she is, but also as the piece of art that she is. My wish was magically and painstakingly realized by the genius of our animation and graphics team Smith/Lee. Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee got the idea and ran with it. They became true partners in the vision of the film.

LC:  Strangely, seeing Barbie ‘in parts’ onscreen was a reminder of her toy, non-human status; as a thing that’s the sum of its parts, which comes to life, thanks to the dreams/fantasies that so many girls (and some boys) project onto her. What was your thinking in showing Barbie deconstructed? And why was it important to your storytelling?

AN:  I am ceaselessly fascinated by the transformative power of hair, make-up, and clothing, which is so much of what playing with Barbie is about. We really wanted to see the doll in her most micro, a bald head, an unpainted face, and then build her back up. I sometimes feel that way when I wash my face and put on PJs. I deconstruct. Then I wake up in the morning and figure out who I’m going to be that day. My husband and I having a running joke when we get dressed and present ourselves for appraisal. We say, “This is what I’m going as.” I do think it’s part of being human, and why playing with Barbie can be so appealing, no matter your gender.

LC:  Assuming you had your own special relationship with a Barbie — whether playful or distant — can you talk about your interactions, as a child, with the icon? Was there any particular Barbie, or outfit, or play scenario day that remains clear?

AN:   Barbie was part of my toy ecosystem, but she was not the dominant species. Dominance belonged to my trolls (the old-fashioned, non-gendered, plastic kind with crazy hair), and my brothers’ GI Joes. She was a Malibu Barbie, so, as a New Yorker, she was exotically Amazonian with her tan and her height, a buff warrior of the Pacific Ocean, but really no match for my stuffed Snoopy, who was my soulmate.

LC: What was it like to be in the room for the unveiling of the wonderful new Barbie (Fashionista line) that comes in different shapes and tones?…

AN:  As a journalist, you’re supposed to remain detached. It’s also really easy to doubt a seemingly monolithic corporation. But having watched the strong, smart women who worked so tirelessly on reshaping and rethinking Barbie, I couldn’t help but feel the joy they felt when their vision was understood by a very critical outside world.

 

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