- Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, also founded Mattel in 1945 and played a crucial role in the company’s success.
- Ruth’s inspiration for creating Barbie came from her own experiences and seeing the lack of options for girls’ toys compared to boys’.
- Ruth named the Barbie doll after her daughter, Barbara Handler, and her son, Kenneth, inspired the creation of Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. However, Ruth’s legacy was tarnished by Mattel’s fraud controversy in the 1970s.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie has Easter eggs referencing Barbie’s real origins, but not all moviegoers might know the true story behind the famous fashion doll and her creator, Ruth Handler. Inspired by the iconic toy of the same name, Greta Gerwig’s movie Barbie tells the story of Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken, who go on a journey of self-discovery after leaving Barbieland for the real world. The live-action Barbie has not only attracted plenty of attention for its unique premise but also for its surprising box office rivalry with Oppenheimer, making Barbie one of the most anticipated movies of summer 2023.
Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll and founder of Mattel, not only was integral to Barbie’s true story but also the journey of Margot Robbie’s character in Barbie.
Although Barbie plays with the universe and characters created by Mattel in a fantastical way, the movie also pays homage to the titular doll’s real-life creator. Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll and founder of Mattel, not only was integral to Barbie’s true story but also the journey of Margot Robbie’s character in Barbie. However, while Barbie makes several references and jokes about Ruth Handler’s actual background with Mattel and Barbie, their meanings might not immediately be clear. Here is the true backstory of Ruth Handler’s invention of Barbie, including the doll’s origins and what happened to Ruth in her life after Barbie.
Ruth Handler Founded Mattel In 1945
Not only was Ruth Handler behind the creation of Barbie, but she was also integral to the foundation of the titan toy company, Mattel. Ruth’s husband and business partner, Elliot, had been pursuing furniture making, which Ruth saw as a potential business opportunity. The two then partnered with Harold “Matt” Matson, leading to the creation of Mattel in 1945. Mattel’s name came from the combination of Matson’s surname and Elliot Handler’s first name, leaving Ruth’s name unrepresented despite her importance to the company’s genesis because the founders “couldn’t fit it in.” In contrast to what Mattel would later become famous for, the company was initially a furniture manufacturer.
During World War II, furniture sales dipped drastically, leading Mattel to pivot from making furniture to making toys. After seeing such major success from their toy sales, Mattel switched their focus entirely to toys, which has continued into the present day. Prior to the creation of the Barbie doll, Mattel had several other hit toys on the market, including a ukulele called the “Uke-A-Doodle,” the Magic 8 Ball, and Fisher-Price’s Corn Popper.
When Ruth Handler Invented Barbie & Real-Life Inspiration
Though the Barbie doll has been criticized over the years for being unrealistic, Ruth Handler’s inspiration for the doll came from her own life. There are two important moments that inspired Ruth to create Barbie. While on vacation in Europe with her husband and children, Ruth noticed a fashion doll called the Bild Lilli, which stood out to her in contrast to the baby dolls girls had to play with in the U.S. On a separate vacation, Ruth watched her daughter playing with paper dolls and wondered why her daughter didn’t have a 3D doll to dress up when her son had so many toy options to choose from.
As a result of these major experiences in her life, Ruth decided to create a realistic, 3D fashion doll for Mattel. Ruth’s aim with the Barbie doll was to create a toy for girls that allowed them to imagine what and who they wanted to be, just like boys could with their toys. Mattel’s Barbie doll premiered at the American Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. Barbie was an instant success, paving the way for Barbie to become the cultural icon that she is today.
Ruth Handler Named Barbie After Her Daughter
The name of the Barbie doll also pays homage to Ruth’s real-life inspiration for the creation of the doll. Ruth named Mattel’s new doll after her own daughter, Barbara Handler, whose lack of formidable toys led to Barbie’s creation. Likewise, when Mattel decided to add a boyfriend doll for Barbie to the company’s roster, the toy titan again took inspiration from the Handlers’ family members. Barbie’s boyfriend Ken is named after Ruth and Elliot’s son, Kenneth. Naming Mattel’s two main dolls after the Handlers’ children is a wholesome reminder of the dolls’ origins: to give Barbara a toy that provided as many options for playing as Kenneth had.
Did Ruth Handler & Mattel Have Problems With The IRS?
Barbie’s IRS jokes about Mattel are based in reality. During the 1970s, Mattel encountered controversy when reports came out that the toy company had falsified invoices, bills, and signatures in order to paint a more optimistic picture of Mattel’s finances.
In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, Ruth Handler cracks a joke alluding to Mattel having issues with the IRS, but did Ruth Handler and Mattel actually have problems with the IRS in real life? Unfortunately for Ruth Handler’s legacy, Barbie’s IRS jokes about Mattel are based in reality. During the 1970s, Mattel encountered controversy when reports came out that the toy company had falsified invoices, bills, and signatures in order to paint a more optimistic picture of Mattel’s finances. In reality, Mattel had actually been reporting millions in losses. This scandal led the Handlers to resign from their role in the company, but the damage had already been done.
Ruth Handler was indicted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1978 for fraud and false reporting, which she pleaded no contest to (despite maintaining her innocence to the public). As a result, Ruth Handler received a $57,000 fine and 2,500 hours of community service in response to the charges. The ousting of the Handlers in the wake of Mattel’s fraud controversy in the 1970s remains a blemish on Ruth Handler’s legacy, occasionally overshadowing her vital contributions to Mattel as Barbie’s creator.
What Happened To The Real Ruth Handler After Creating Barbie
After creating the Barbie doll in 1959, Ruth Handler continued to play a major role in Mattel’s operations until she and Elliot resigned from the company in 1974 as a result of Mattel’s fraud controversy. Ruth encountered tough times in 1970 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which necessitated her to undergo a mastectomy. Dismayed at the difficulty of finding breast prostheses that were realistic, Ruth decided to create her own. With the help of business partner Peyton Massey, Ruth founded new company Ruthton Corp., which created the “Nearly Me” breast prosthesis, an invention that became quite popular.
After the Handlers left their positions at Mattel in 1974, Ruth and Elliot Handler led a life that was mostly out of the public eye. Towards the end of her life, Ruth was stricken with colon cancer, which ultimately led to her death. As a result of complications with surgery to deal with her colon cancer, Ruth Handler died on April 27, 2002, at the age of 85. Though her reputation has been complicated by her involvement in Mattel’s fraud scandal, Ruth Handler is still best remembered and celebrated for her innovation in creating Barbie.
Who Plays Ruth Handler In The Barbie Movie
Barbie not only uses Ruth Handler’s creations for the movie but includes an important homage to Ruth Handler. Rhea Perlman offers a thoughtful portrayal of the Barbie doll inventor, adding a touching modern sentiment about what Barbie has meant to generations of women and how these sentiments have evolved over time. Perlman, who has been married to actor Danny DeVito since 1982, has appeared in dozens of films and television series, including Matilda (1996) and Cheers (1982 – 1993).
Rhea Perlman plays a spiritual role in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie as Ruth, serving as an overwatching god for Barbieland. She provides Barbie aid and counsel at the end of the movie, particularly when Barbie grapples with the prospect of becoming human. Toward Barbie’s ending, Ruth reveals her identity to Barbie, and she says Barbie’s story has no ending, motivating Barbie to embrace the human world. The real-life contributions of Ruth Handler make her the perfect person to help Barbie, tying Barbie and the real world together again.
- Release Date:
- Greta Gerwig
- Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Ariana Greenblatt, Helen Mirren, Nicola Coughlan, John Cena, Will Ferrell, Ritu Arya, Michael Cera, America Ferrera, Alexandra Shipp, Kate McKinnon
- 114 Minutes
- Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
- Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
- $100 Million
- LuckyChap Entertainment, Mattel Films, Heyday Films
- Warner Bros. Pictures
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