I guess I grew up nextdoor to Barbie.
Our family house sat inches from that of Ruth and Elliot Handler. Eliot was a quiet man, Ruth a dynamo in every way. She loved to play competitive board games with my brother. And talk politics with my equally left-leaning father.
I confess that it took a while before I learned the Handlers ran the Mattel company and that Ruth singlehandedly created the plaything that would impact so many. It is a known story that when the couple was visiting Europe, Ruth saw windows and stores filled with a very different kind of doll—named Lili—rather than the babyish ones American youngsters were trained to care for. Ruth figured out—and had to convince a company filled with men—that our girls, too, would rather play with dolls who looked like what they aspired to be.
Ruth figured out—and had to convince a company filled with men—that our girls, too, would rather play with dolls who looked like what they aspired to be.
At first, Barbie was primarily the dressed-up version. Another executive at Mattel, the highly creative Ivy Ross (now in charge of a design division at Google), made Barbie cooler. Suddenly, she wore sneakers, she was athletic, she became a working woman in many fields, she had breasts! Both our home and the Handlers’ were on a beach, so, of course, we applauded Malibu Barbie when she emerged.
The Real Barbie
Barbie was named for the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara, a delectable redhead, about 10 years my senior. Her brother, Ken, was only with them intermittently. (I later heard he’d gone somewhere to travel and had died mysteriously.) Once I had a daughter of my own, Ruth started giving her original Barbies, which (my) Lily still has. Lily went to a Barbie popup store recently and like everyone else, it seems, is excited about Greta Gerwig’s movie about the world’s most famous feminine non-human.
Truth be told, I grew up a serious tomboy. I have no memory of wanting or receiving anything remotely girlish. (My most appreciated gift was a Davy Crockett coonskin cap.) One day, to get me off the sports fields, where my brothers played, my mom placed me in front of the TV set.
Once I had a daughter of my own, Ruth started giving her original Barbies.
“This is called The Mickey Mouse Club,” she said, “and every other girl in America is playing with Barbie or watching this.” She rued that day, since I became a rabid Mouseketeer wanna-be. It was all Sharon and Annette and Karen and Cubby . . . but still not a Barbie in the house.
Until decades later, when my own daughter felt very differently. “I was allowed to imagine and role play a range of life and career choices,” she says of Barbie. “There was nothing she couldn’t do or be, and therefore nothing I couldn’t do or be.”
I often think of Ruth, and I wonder what she would think of the latest Barbiemania. Her ending was less than perfect. She and Elliot were tossed out of Mattel on mail fraud conspiracy charges, which was heartbreaking and humiliating. Then, Ruth developed breast cancer. But, ever the fighter, she not only beat back the disease, but invented a line of breast prosthesis. They eventually both died, but Mattel will always be known as the house they built. And Barbie the doll that Ruth built. As for the house they built, Barbara lived in it for years, then her lovely daughter took it over with her partner. (Both women were in non-profit type work, I believe.) Ultimately it was sold to a right-wing billionaire. Sorry, Ruth.
Mattel will always be known as the house that the Handlers built. And Barbie the doll that Ruth built.
Barbara always had mixed feelings about her unusual star power, but she was kind and perhaps even grew to embrace it. My husband and I once held a big gathering at my parents’ house, and there were quite a few well-known folks from the news and political worlds. The kinds who are mostly impressed with themselves. But when word got out that the real Barbie was sitting on the deck nextdoor, that was it. I still recall anchorman Brian Williams making his way over and chatting with her for a long time. Others followed his lead. And they still are.
Michele Willens is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause.