Boomer girls grew up playing with Barbie and her boyfriend Ken, clothing them with miniature couture designs and our own imaginations. Over the decades, Barbie grew as we did, adapting to many personas—a flight attendant, an astronaut, a gold medal gymnast, a presidential candidate, to name a few—and survived numerous wardrobe adjustments and feminist barbs along the way. Paying tribute to her evolving look, designers even created a show for her during New York’s Fashion Week this February. And today, March 9, Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday.
We never suspected that our dolls were named for the two children of their ground-breaking creator, Ruth Handler. And why would we? Barbara Millicent Roberts, aka Barbie, the slim, elegant representation of a cultural ideal, and Ruth, the Polish-Jewish daughter of immigrants who scraped her way to the top, seemed to hail from different worlds.
Handler founded Mattel with her inventor-husband, the love of her life, Elliot, in a friend’s garage in 1944. With Elliot at the helm of the company in title only, she masterminded Mattel’s rapid growth to become a $200 million company, the largest toy business in America, by 1970. Eight years later, she lost her life’s work after a fraud conviction and was forced out of the company. How she achieved her success, rebounded from debilitating breast cancer and criminal disgrace, and achieved a measure of redemption is the subject of Robin Gerber’s Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her. “In one generation, the Handlers went from poverty, fear and repression to unimaginable wealth, comfort and security,” writes Gerber, who calls Ruth Handler a great American story. Through archival documents, personal papers and extensive interviews, Gerber has produced the first biography of the famous doll’s creator. Handler died in 2002 at the age of 85, but her greatest invention, the Barbie doll, endures.
AARP Bulletin Today talked to Gerber about her new biography. (Read an excerpt here.)
Q. What was so special about Barbie?
A. Ruth had a big idea at a time when the only dolls that girls played with were baby dolls. If you played with dolls, there was only one thing you could be: the mom. Ruth believed that little girls wanted to play at being big girls, and they had no doll that would allow them to play out those fantasies. She gave girls a doll that was an adult with very little back story. There are famous women who will tell you that they loved their Barbies because they allowed them to fantasize about being anything as adults.
Q. I don’t think most people realize that Barbie was modeled on a European sex toy.
A. That’s right. Ruth had tried to get male designers to create a vision she had for an adult doll. They just refused. They said mothers would not buy their daughters dolls with breasts, and argued it was too costly to make the kind of doll Ruth envisioned. After several years of wrangling, Ruth went on a family trip to Europe. In a toy shop window she saw a doll that seemed the perfect prototype for the doll she had in mind. The European doll, named “Lilli,” was modeled after a cartoon character in a German tabloid newspaper who was a prostitute. At the time, Ruth was unaware of this, although I doubt she would have cared. She bought several dolls, gave them to her designers and ordered them to copy the doll with minor modifications.
Q. So that’s how Barbie came to look like she did?
A. Barbie’s looks had much more to do with business decisions than culture. Ruth also felt that the curvaceous figure would make the clothes fit better. And remember, Ruth herself was quite buxom and she was living in Los Angeles, where there was no shortage of curvaceous women.