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Happy Birthday, Barbie: Q&A with Robin Gerber, author of Barbie and Ruth

Read this interview with Robin Gerber, author of Barbie and Ruth.

Q. But Barbie also inspired a darker side.

A. True. Culturally, the doll became such a phenomenon that there were unintended consequences. Ruth never intended for little girls’ body images to be injured by playing with the doll. There’s some credible research that Barbie has a negative psychological effect for some girls. I don’t think we can say Barbie is the source of all anorexia and that the doll encouraged seeing women only as sex objects. That’s one feminist take on the doll. I think there’s another one. Though Ruth was not a feminist, it was a feminist idea to say to little girls, “Don’t feel constrained by society’s plans for you. You can be anything you want.”

Q. Ruth seemed to embody that sentiment—to “be anything you want.” No question she was the firepower behind Mattel. What were the keys to her success?

A. Ruth wasn’t afraid to hire the best and the brightest. She wasn’t looking for “yes” people. I’d say she was looking for “no” people, challenging people. She also was forward-thinking, so when Disney started the Mickey Mouse Club, the television show, and offered her the chance to advertise on it, something no toy company had ever done, she bet the entire net worth of the company on that. That turned out to be a very good bet. Mattel toys that were advertised on TV flew off the shelves. Marketing was one of her huge strong points, but she also understood business processes, from the conception of a product to the sale to the consumer. Because of the big delay in finding out if and when a store runs out of a product, she sent out a force of people to visit stores and see how the product was doing. It made a huge difference. Too much inventory was the death knell for toy companies. Toys were so quickly out of fashion. The key was to figure out how many to make, make the right number and get them out to the consumer. So this is a great business story.

Q. How did Ruth’s upbringing prepare her for an extraordinary career?

A. Ruth was the 10th and last child of Polish-Jewish immigrants who never spoke English very well. Her mother was too ill to raise her, so her oldest sister, Sarah, became her surrogate mother. Sarah later discovered that she couldn’t have a child and doted on Ruth, who loved being with Sarah in the deli she ran in Denver. Seeing her sister as a businesswoman led Ruth to believe that it was fine for her to lead the same kind of life. Ruth was always in a hurry to grow up, and didn’t spend much time on ordinary childhood friendships. Coming from this humble and hard-working childhood, she built one of the great American companies.

Q. What kind of effect did Barbie have on Mattel?

A. The company was well-established when Barbie came along in 1959. The success of Barbie led Mattel to go public, and the company was the darling of Wall Street throughout the 1960s. Barbie sales catapulted the company into its lead among all toy companies, but Mattel toys sold well overall. Barbie and her friends, accessories and clothes were the most successful Mattel brand. But Elliot came up with Hot Wheels in the late 1960s, and those toys also became a major success.

Q. Talk about Ken. In 1961 when he was created, many believed boy dolls wouldn’t sell.

A. Little girls began begging for a boyfriend for Barbie soon after the doll was released. Mattel responded to demand. Once the decision was made to give Barbie a male companion, the next big question was, how realistic would he be? The male designers wanted to make his genital area absolutely flat. Ruth thought otherwise, and she was concerned that since the doll was named after her son, he might be upset if it appeared to lack a penis. In the end, Ruth lost the battle, and her son was quite upset with the doll.

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