Friday, November 4, 2016

Barbie's Jewish Mother

One might easily wonder what Ruth Handler's reaction would have been to the recently released Barbies of various size. Having finally responded in 1997 to criticism about the original Barbie's impossible hourglass figure by resizing her proportions, Mattel (tr) has now broken the model altogether and  created a range of Barbie bodies.

While the revamped image of Barbie is certainly a good thing, Handler was never troubled by the original Barbie's critics. Having designed the doll after watching her daughter play-acting her pre-teen aspirations with paper dolls, Handler felt that she was giving each girl access to dream of her grown-up future. And, while Barbie has been accused of damaging feminism, the woman who made her was a business woman of stunning success.

The 10th and youngest child of Polish Jews who had settled in Denver, Colorado, Handler married her childhood sweetheart (Izzy Elliot Handler) and, shortly thereafter, moved to Los Angeles. There she helped her husband create a company that manufactured plastic and lucite novelties.  Going into partnership with Harold "Matt" Matsen, the Handlers formed Mattel, and the company had its first success, the "Uke-a-doodle" toy ukulele, in 1947.

Handler stayed involved in her husband's business while raising their two children, Barbara and Ken. At first the company resisted her idea for a grown-up doll, but she finally convinced them to give it a shot. The initially slow sales were shockingly reversed when Mattel advertised Barbie heavily during the new Disney Mickey Mouse Club television show. The Handlers guided Mattel until 1975, when a financial scandal caused them to resign from the company.

Ruth Handler may be best known for the creation of the Barbie doll, but she had a second significant career following her battle with breast cancer. Handler created Ruthton Corporation, which manufactured "Nearly Me," a more realistic breast implant for women who had had a mastectomy.

Ruth Handler passed away from colon cancer on April 27, 2002. She was born 100 years ago today (November 3rd).

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