In the upcoming Barbie movie, director Greta Gerwig explores the relationship between Barbie‘s creator, Ruth Handler, and her daughter, Barbara. Handler revolutionized the toy industry in the 1950s by creating a mainstream doll with the proportions of an adult female. This move challenged the prevailing notion that girls should only play with baby dolls and conditioned them to be mothers. By creating a doll that resembled an adult woman, Handler aimed to inspire girls to envision themselves in various roles and careers.
### The Birth of Barbie
Handler’s inspiration for creating Barbie came from her daughter Barbara, who enjoyed playing dress-up with paper dolls. In 1956, while on a European vacation, Handler came across a German doll called Bild Lilli that was based on a voluptuous pin-up from World War II. Seeing an opportunity, Handler brought the doll back to the United States to prove that a similar concept could be successful. At the 1959 Toy Fair in New York City, Barbie made her debut wearing the iconic black-and-white striped bathing suit that has become synonymous with the doll. Barbie‘s popularity soared, and Mattel became a successful company thanks to her sales.
### Barbie‘s Evolution
Over the years, Barbie transitioned from being solely a fashion doll to embodying various careers and aspirations. She became a doctor, astronaut, and role model for young girls who aspired to be more than just fashionistas. M.G. Lord, author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Living Doll,” argues that Barbie is an archetypal figure upon which girls project their idealized selves. She has become an iconic symbol in American culture and has resonated with generations of individuals.
### The Complex Reality of Ruth Handler
Ruth Handler’s life was far from simple. In 1978, she faced legal trouble when she and several other Mattel executives were indicted for conspiracy, mail fraud, and providing false financial statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ultimately, Handler pleaded no contest and faced penalties including a fine and community service. However, she later found success in the 1980s with a company called Nearly Me, which designed life-like prostheses for breast cancer survivors. Handler herself battled breast cancer and used her own experience to promote and sell the product. She became a symbol of strength and resilience for many women.
### Ruth Handler as a Spiritual Figure
In the Barbie movie, Ruth Handler plays a spiritual role. She appears as a mysterious figure in a retro kitchen, providing comfort to Barbie during a moment of existential crisis. As Barbie discovers her true identity, Ruth helps her escape the confines of societal expectations and encourages her to embrace her own humanity. Their relationship, depicted as a touch of hands reminiscent of the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, showcases Ruth as a symbol of divine intervention in Barbie‘s life. Barbie, in leaving Barbie Land, symbolizes leaving behind a matriarchal version of Eden to face the complexities of the real world.
Ruth Handler’s role in creating Barbie and her complex life story add depth to the iconic doll’s legacy. Through her invention, Handler challenged societal norms, inspired generations of girls to dream big, and gave voice to the aspirations of women worldwide. The Barbie movie, through its portrayal of Ruth Handler as a spiritual figure, provides a captivating exploration of Barbie‘s journey from a doll without a personality or inner life to an emblem of empowerment and aspiration.
<< photo by Sanjib Samanta >>
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