Ruth Handler: Remoulding the Legacy of Barbie’s Creator

A barbie doll from 1959 (P.C. Flickr)

In 1959, Ruth Handler debuted the Barbie fashion doll. Named after her daughter Barbara, Barbie was an instant success and became an iconic figure in popular culture. Despite having long been vilified by feminists such as Gloria Steinem, the doll is currently undergoing something of a revival. Barbie’s sales surged during the COVID lockdown, and she is the star of Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated upcoming film. An exploration of Ruth Handler’s life and career reveals the significance of Barbie’s inception, but also shows that it was just one of the legacies she had left behind. 

The tenth child of Polish Jewish immigrants, Ruth Mosko was born in 1916. She moved to Hollywood and married Elliot Handler in 1938. They later founded Mattel together alongside Harold Matson. Ruth was inspired to create Barbie after noticing that her daughter preferred to play with paper models of adult women over baby dolls. For male executives at Mattel, it was unthinkable for parents to buy dolls with breasts for their daughters. In response, Handler advertised Barbie directly to children and not their parents, and. Barbie became hugely successful. As the first mass-produced doll in the U.S to have adult features and breasts, Barbie was a pioneer – and so was the woman who created her. 

Barbie changed the way girls interacted with dolls. While realistic baby dolls popular at the time were made for girls to nurture and care for, Barbie was a glamorised adult doll they could play with. In fact, Barbie was inspired by the sexualised Lilli dolls, which were given as joke gifts at bachelor parties and certainly not designed for children to play with. Barbie showed young girls that their lives didn’t have to revolve around motherhood, allowing them to explore different versions of their future selves. 

Barbie’s unrealistic figure and dimensions were quickly met with criticism, and outrage at Barbie’s lack of diversity is still prominent today. Barbie is undeniably problematic in these respects, and studies have shown the doll can have a detrimental impact on girls’ body image. Although Mattel has introduced more lines to make Barbie more inclusive, she remains a controversial figure.

Despite the controversies, however, Handler remained a staunch defender of her creation during her lifetime. She emphasised that it showed little girls a variety of career options available to them, such as the introduction of astronaut Barbie in 1965.

After a breast cancer diagnosis in 1970, Handler underwent a mastectomy. Unable to fully focus on business, she lost control of Mattel and resigned. Struggling to find a realistic breast prosthesis, she was again inspired to create a solution herself. She manufactured ‘Nearly Me’, a successful line of prosthetic breasts designed to  enhance comfort and confidence amongst breast cancer survivors. Sales exceeded $1 million by 1980. Regarding her motivations, Handler thought “it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.” Handler had once again used unusual marketing tactics when promoting her prosthetics line, as she would ask reporters to feel her chest and try to identify which one of her breasts was real.

First lady Betty Ford was fitted for a prosthetic from Handler’s line after she had a mastectomy in 1974. At a time when there was little awareness on breast cancer, Ford’s openness about her diagnosis was unprecedented and inspired further discussion, a ripple effect of Handler’s influence. 

Handler died following surgery for colon cancer in 2002, aged 85. While Barbie has been continually and justifiably criticised, Handler’s legacy ultimately helped empower the girls who played with the doll. The drive to lift up other women also fuelled the development of her prosthetics line. Despite the warranted controversies surrounding Barbie, Handler’s resilience, determination, and business savvy deserve to be remembered. 

Emily Cull, Summer Writer

Quote from: 

Spindler, Amy M. “Bless Her Pointy Little Feet”, The New York Times, 5 February 1995. 

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