Ruth, the visionary

The figure of the American entrepreneur Ruth Handler becomes relevant with the real Barbie mania that has erupted after the worldwide release of Greta Gerwig's film. Not because the movie is about her, but because the gender focus of its plot inevitably recalls the path taken by the creator of an iconic doll that continues to resonate with girls from such diverse generations, yet sharing very similar dreams and aspirations.

3 August 2023

Sometimes the entrepreneur’s intuition is everything. And the story of Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, seems to confirm it. A keen observer, she quickly understood why her daughter Barbara preferred playing with paper dolls resembling adult women rather than dolls resembling children. She also noticed that the paper accessories and clothing didn’t fit well on the figure, so she thought of creating a three-dimensional plastic doll with fabric clothing. Her husband, Elliot Handler, and her partner at Mattel, which was then a furniture factory, didn’t believe that parents would buy their daughters a doll with a voluptuous figure, but Ruth was convinced that, with some adjustments, it would work.

She brought a Lilli doll from Europe for her daughter, which wasn’t exactly a toy for girls, but it closely matched the idea she had in mind and would serve as inspiration for what she wanted to create. According to author Alan Farnham in his book “Historias de grandes éxitos” (Success Stories), the designers rejected the idea because they believed Lilli’s aesthetics would hinder girls from identifying with the doll. They claimed that girls dreamed of being mothers, so they should continue focusing on the “safe market” of manufacturing plastic strollers, baby bottles, and baby dolls.

Ruth adapted the doll’s design and renamed her Barbie, in honor of her daughter. With her new appearance, Barbie made her debut at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, but it wasn’t until Mattel sponsored the children’s TV program “The Mickey Mouse Club” that her success skyrocketed. In the first year alone, more than 350 thousand units of the doll were sold. Later, her boyfriend Ken was created, named after the Handler’s son, and many other “friends and family” of Barbie’s world were added over time.

Ten years later, Mattel was making $500 million annually just from Barbie sales, with Ruth at the helm of the company for three decades, making her one of the most important female entrepreneurs of her time. However, in the mid-1970s, the doll started facing criticism for promoting an unattainable female stereotype and physique. Around the same time, Ruth and her husband became the subject of an investigation for financial document forgery by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. To settle the fraud case, the couple had to pay a fine of $57,000, perform 2,500 hours of community service, and remove Ruth Handler from the company’s presidency.

Later, the entrepreneur explained that her health problems had distracted her from her obligations. In 1975, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. Her doctor suggested filling her bra with stockings, which again, in a completely different stage of her life, sparked her entrepreneurial vocation and inspired her to design the first breast prostheses under the new company she called Ruthton Corp., with the brand ‘Nearly

Handler sold the company in 1991 and retired from public life. She died at the age of 85 in California due to complications from colon cancer surgery.

The Dream House: “From the beginning, much of Barbie’s existence—her unrealistic physical proportions, lack of racial diversity, reinforcement of gender roles in the toy—has been debated both humorously and seriously,” says The New York Times. Three years after Barbie stunned the toy world by wearing a one-piece swimsuit and heels, Mattel introduced the Dream House in 1962, a house without a kitchen and with many rooms designed for entertainment, at a time when women were strongly associated with household chores, and financial institutions often rejected mortgage applications from women without male co-signers.

“Mortgage lenders had a number of stereotypes about women—the same types of stereotypes that were used to discriminate against them in jobs, insurance, and businesses open to the public—primarily that women were economically dependent on men and that their role was that of caregivers,” said Deborah Dinner, a law professor at Cornell University and author of “The Sex Equality Dilemma,” to The Times. Dinner added that single or divorced women were commonly denied loans simply for not being married.

This practice, known as credit discrimination, persisted until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed. Many employers were also not legally required to pay women the same wages as men for performing similar work before the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963.

Over the years, the doll’s launch and longevity have been interpreted as an act of female rebellion transcending cultures and time. Barbie’s world contains a powerful message for girls worldwide: they can dream of being whatever they truly want to be and succeed in any field.

Beyond Boundaries: “With more than 160 professions, this doll has been a childhood revolution, allowing millions of girls to grow up experiencing a world full of possibilities, without limitations,” says the portal marketing4ecommerce.net. Currently, there are Barbies with different body measurements, with prosthetics, in wheelchairs, and also, recently, with Down syndrome.

“The first step towards diversity was taken in the 1960s in the United States. In the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the first black doll named Christie appeared in Barbie’s universe,” explains the DW network. Director Lagueria Davis tells her story in the movie “Black Barbie.”

The brand’s major motto is: “You can be anything,” a philosophy it has championed since its inception and has developed over the years. Barbie has broken stereotypes, creating a role model for girls.

In addition to having her own house, a milestone that happened years before women could have their own bank account, in 1965, two years after a woman first went into space, the astronaut Barbie was launched. In the ’70s, the first black and Hispanic Barbies were created, becoming the main character and not just friends of Barbie.

In 1985, Executive Director Barbie was released, and in the same year, the campaign “We Girls Can Do Anything” was presented—a series of ads encouraging girls to pursue their dreams and believe in themselves. In 1992, Barbie became president, in 2015, the Barbie Heroines collection was introduced, and in 2018, the range of Inspiring Women dolls under the #MoreRoleModels campaign, paying tribute to great women who made history.

Breast Prostheses: After creating one of the most iconic toys, Handler’s success did not stop as Mattel had become one of the most innovative companies, changing baby dolls and play kitchens for clothing lines and high heels for Barbie, as mentioned by Elle magazine. However, the entrepreneur’s journey was interrupted ten years later due to two events: tax evasion and being diagnosed with breast cancer, leading to a long treatment and a mastectomy to overcome the disease. “Breast cancer destroyed my self-confidence. My own image shattered into pieces. I wanted to maintain my femininity in a male-dominated world,” she said on several occasions. After going through extensive treatment and not feeling comfortable with any of the prostheses provided, the entrepreneur had a new business idea that aimed to support thousands of women with the same diagnosis and help them cope with their recovery after a mastectomy: her brand of breast prostheses, ‘Nearly Me’. With her company, she sparked a second revolution surrounding breasts, and even the then-first lady, Betty Ford, became one of her customers.