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.
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.
Q. How did Ruth view her role, rare for the time, as a working mother?
A. She found it very hard. She felt that few women were suited to the stress involved in being a homemaker and business leader, but she didn’t feel she had any choice. She said she would have been a very unhappy and mixed-up woman if she hadn’t worked. She didn’t like cooking and wasn’t good at it, and she had a rocky relationship with her only daughter, Barbara. She was, of course, wealthy enough to afford help with the children and housework, and her family helped out as well.
Q. You say Elliot and Ruth were a great love story. How so?
A. They met when they were 16 years old, and it was truly love at first sight. They couldn’t be apart, and they created a life where they worked together and capitalized on each other’s strengths. For most of the Mattel’s history, Ruth had the title of vice president. But, as she said, she founded Mattel, and she was the one in charge of the company other than research and design, which was Elliot’s territory. Elliot held the title of president, but this had more to do with gender than reality. They did collaborate closely on decisions throughout their time at Mattel. They were together for more than 65 years, building a company, raising two children, surviving the legal case and loss of their company, Ruth’s breast cancer, and the death of their son. When I interviewed Elliot, it was clear that he was as in love with Ruth on the day she died as on the day he married her.
Q. Ruth was convicted of corporate fraud in 1978. Based on your research, do you think she was guilty?
A. She had a big ethical blind spot. In 1970 she had a bad quarter and didn’t want Wall Street to know, so she cooked the books and falsified the corporate earnings in order to keep the stock price up. Eventually she was caught. She always denied it, and I don’t think she instigated the fraud. But she certainly knew the amount of earnings was overstated. There’s no way a woman who knew where every company penny was going could miss the fact that millions of dollars of claimed sales didn’t really exist. I think she believed that she could get away with it because Mattel would recover and no one would ever know. After 25 years of success, it’s easy to see why she believed that, but that doesn’t make it right.
Q. How did Ruth put her tragedies behind her and find redemption?
A. She never did put her resentments completely behind her. Late in her life, Ruth had her own revelation that the truest form of fulfillment comes when you have suffered. She said only people like her who had really suffered could understand what true happiness meant. She started helping other women with breast cancer by fitting them with these prostheses so they didn’t feel ashamed of their bodies. She got great satisfaction from that. Up till then, she had thought that running a company was the only thing that could save her.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.