Ruth's babe

Robin Gerber's book chronicles the rise of Ruth Handler as she broke through the boundaries of corporate America with her Barbie doll.

By DANIELLE MAX
June 11, 2009 09:44
4 minute read.
Ruth's babe

Ruth Handler 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her By Robin Gerber Collins Business 288 pp., $24.99 (hardcover) For 50 years, girls the world over have dressed and undressed their Barbie dolls. They've sent her on dates with the faithful, if slightly dull Ken - or with the hunky GI Joe if she's lucky - and they've seen her "work" as a presidential candidate/pediatrician/UNICEF ambassador or any of the more than 100 careers she's had. Along with arranging and rearranging Barbie's dream house, and dream life, these same girls have also used the doll to play out their childhood dreams and adolescent fantasies. Had Barbie's creator listened to her husband, however, this iconic plaything might never have been born. "Ruth," Elliot Handler told his wife, "no mother is ever going to buy her daughter a doll with breasts." Fortunately, Ruth Handler disregarded his advice and embarked on the project that would change her life forever - for better and for worse. For Handler, breasts - and the lack of them - were pivotal in her building two successful careers. The first was as president of Mattel, which she and her husband founded, at a time when most women tended only to run their homes. The second came in the 1970s when Handler established Ruthton to manufacture the Nearly Me prosthetics for women who, like herself, had undergone mastectomies. As she said, "I've come full cycle from the first doll with a real breast to answering a real woman's need for a fake breast." Robin Gerber's book Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her chronicles the rise of Handler as she broke through the boundaries of corporate America and took on - and beat - the big boys with her uber-feminine doll and her innovative marketing and business ideas. Gerber also details Handler's fall, including her ousting from Mattel and her criminal trial for financial irregularities at the behemoth toy firm. The biographer also chronicles the unforeseen personal tragedy that would strike the Handler family. Gerber describes the shrewd innovator whose natural business savvy overcame her lack of formal education, as well as the pushy, determined and sometimes underhanded businesswoman who relentlessly strove to keep her company at the top. But as she reveals, while Handler was busy creating toys to keep millions of children happy, she was unable to please her own. Handler, born Ruth Mosko, was the 10th and youngest child of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Circumstances after her birth meant that she was raised by her oldest sister Sarah and her brother-in-law Louie. Living apart from her parents and her other siblings, Ruth grew up in an English-speaking household and could barely communicate with her Yiddish-speaking parents. The echoes of this disjointed family life were heard when Handler became a mother to her two children Barbara (after whom she named the Barbie doll) and Kenneth (Ken). The children, Ken especially, resented sharing their names with the dolls, but they also hated that the pressures of the business meant their mother was rarely home. As Gerber shows, and as Handler herself has said, work came first and family second. The disharmony grew between the generations and was really only mended after Ken was stricken with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s; the disease was to take his life in 1994, just one day before his daughter's wedding. Despite Gerber's extensive research, her interviews with family, friends and former Mattel employees, as well as her use of archival material left behind by Handler, the relatively slim book seems to skim over certain situations and events too quickly. Furthermore, there is also something missing of the essence of Ruth Handler. This vibrant, feisty and unpredictable woman - who had no qualms about appearing on the cover of People magazine with her blouse pulled wide open - comes across a little flat, as if Gerber could not quite get to grips with her. Nonetheless, the book is readable and informative and will appeal to a wider audience than just those who have played with a Barbie doll (although given that statistics say that 90 percent of US girls between three and 10 have at least one of the dolls, that is quite a lot of people). Ultimately, though, Barbie and Ruth tells the story of two intertwined, iconic characters that shattered the traditional mould, albeit in very different ways. Although many regard Barbie as an anti-feminist object - critics most often cite the 11.5-inch doll's disproportionate statistics in their defense - even they can acknowledge that she has shown generations of girls that they can be and do anything they want. While Barbie broke through the boundaries in theory, Handler broke through them in reality, and after half a century millions of girls are still playing with the doll that Ruth built.


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