If you’ve watched the Barbie movie, you may be wondering where Ruth Handler is now and what happened to the Barbie creator who invented one of the most popular dolls in history.
Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, stars Margot Robbie as Barbie—also known as “Stereotypical Barbie”—as she leaves her home in Barbieland and learns about the cruel, harsh and sexist realities of the real world. The movie also stars Ryan Gosling as Ken, also known as “Beach Ken,” Barbie’s suitor. “I think of the film as humanist above anything else. How Barbie operates in Barbieland is she’s entirely continuous with her environment,” Gerwig told Rolling Stone in 2023. “Even the houses have no walls, because you never need to hide because there’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed of. And suddenly finding yourself in the real world and wishing you could hide, that’s the essence of being human.”
She continued, “ But when we were actually shooting on Venice Beach, with Margot and Ryan in neon rollerblading outfits, it was fascinating because it was actually happening in front of us. People would go by Ryan, high-five him, and say, ‘Awesome, Ryan, you look great!’ And they wouldn’t actually say anything to Margot. They’d just look at her. It was just surreal. In that moment, she did feel self-conscious. And as the director, I wanted to protect her. But I also knew that the scene we were shooting had to be the scene where she felt exposed. And she was exposed, both as a celebrity and as a lady. To be fair, Ryan was like, ‘I wish I wasn’t wearing this vest.’ But it was a different kind of discomfort.”
Barbie ends with a scene with a woman named Ruth Handler, who introduces herself as the inventor of Barbie. But who is Ruth Handler in Barbie and where is she now? Read on for what to know about the real creator of Barbie and what happened to her.
Who is Ruth Handler in Barbie?
Who is Ruth Handler in Barbie? Ruth, played by Rhea Perlman, is the creator of Barbie. She first appears in the movie when Barbie tries to escape from Mattel headquarters and comes across a set with a kitchen where she meets Ruth, though Barbie doesn’t know who she is at the time. Ruth directs Barbie to an exit, through which she leaves to escape the Mattel CEO and his employees. It isn’t revealed until the end of the movie when Ruth shows up at Barbieland that she isn’t just any old woman, but the co-founder of Mattel who invented Barbie.
So who is Ruth Handler? Ruth, whose full name is Ruth Marianna Handler, founded toy manufacturing company Mattel Creations in a garage in Los Angeles, California, January 1945 with her husband, Elliot Handler, and businessman, Harold “Matt” Matson. (Mattel was named after Matson and Elliot’s names combined.) The company started by selling picture frames and later dollhouse furniture out of scraps from those frames. A year after Mattel was founded, Matson sold his share and stake of the company to the Handlers, with Ruth taking over his stake. Mattel launched its first successful toy, a ukulele called “Uke-A-Doodle” in 1947.
Mattel debuted its first Barbie doll on March 9, 1959. The doll, which Ruth is credited for inventing and has since become Mattel’s most popular toy in history, was named after Ruth and Elliot’s daughter, Barbara. There are two stories for how Ruth came up with the idea for Barbie. One story is that Ruth came across a doll on a trip to Europe that looked like an adult woman, which contrasted the baby dolls that were popular at that time. There were reports that Ruth came across a German Bild Lilli doll, which was an adult gag gift, and reworked that design into Barbie. The other story was that Ruth saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, which inspired her to create a three-dimensional toy version of her paper dolls. The Barbie was an immediate success, selling more than 350,000 dolls within its first year. Mattel released a Barbie companion doll, the Ken doll (named after Ruth and Elliott’s son), in 1961.
In an interview with Lillith in 1994, Handler confirmed that Barbie and Ken were named after her own children, and that the doll was in part inspired by the paper dolls her daughter used to play with. “The dolls are named for my own children. Barbie and Ken,” she said at the time. “Barbie used to love to play with paper dolls. We went to the dime store together each Saturday, and I noticed that she always chose teenage dolls, never baby dolls or children dolls, and she and her friends used to play for hours with the teenage dolls. I listened to how they would project their future with their dolls.”
She explained that the more adult aspects of Barbie (as well as the idea to have her be able to wear different outfits) was inspired by a trip with her children to Europe. “Finally, when Barbara was too old to play with dolls—12 or 13—we took the children to Europe. We were walking down a street in Lucerne and in the window of a toy store was a display of grown-up dolls with women’s bodies,” she said. “They were called ‘Lilly’ from a European cartoon, and were wearing ski outfits. There were 4 or 5 different styles of ski outfits. I asked Barbara, ‘Would you like one for your room—decoratively?’ She had a hard time choosing which one she wanted. I asked if we could buy the costumes separately and I got a ‘crazy American’ reaction.”
Ruth continued, “In Vienna it was the same story with the Lilly doll—with a new ski outfit we hadn’t seen in Switzerland. So I bought it for myself. Barbara never did get the dolls! I took them to use as models for our people, to show what I meant by an adult teenage doll. The idea of a doll with breasts was not received well. Most of the buyers [for stores] were men, and some didn’t think women would want their daughters to have a doll with breasts! And they themselves didn’t want their daughters to have such a doll! But when we first shipped the doll it just walked off the shelves.”
Ruth also defended herself against parents who criticized Barbie at first for her adult body. “Parental politics never got in the way of their choices,”she said. “A mother saw the play pattern the doll could provide for her daughter. It provides for millions and millions of little girls an important play experience; it gives a little girl the ability to dream about her future. A girl can interpret the adult world around her with this doll as a prop.”
Ruth also responded to criticism at the time that Barbie’s body was too idealized for women. “When we first brought out Barbie I was very much against her being too pretty or having a distinctive personality. I understood the need of little girls to project themselves into their dreams,” she said. “About feminist criticism: I don’t even respond to that. The fact that Barbie is so loved speaks for itself.”
Where is Ruth Handler now?
Where is Ruth Handler now? Ruth resigned from Mattel in 1974 after several investigations into fraudulent financial reports. Ruth, as well as several other Mattel executives, were indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with fraud and false reporting by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978. She pleaded no contestant was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service.
In an interview with USA Today in 2023, Robin Gerber, the author of the 2010 book Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her, explained that Ruth created Barbie as a more mature toy for girls. “Ruth saw that little girls wanted to play at being big girls,” Gerber said. “She described it as a toy that would allow girls to imagine being whatever they wanted to be.”
Is Ruth Handler still alive?
Is Ruth Handler still alive? The answer is no. Ruth died of surgical complications for her colon cancer on April 27, 2002. She was 85 years old. Elliot died nine years later in 2011. He was 95 years old.
Ruth’s death came more than 30 years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 and underwent a modified radical mastectomy. After struggling to find a good breast prosthesis, Ruth decided to make her own. She later manufactured a more realistic version of a woman’s breast called “Nearly Me” under her company, Ruthton Corp. The invention became so popular that First Lady Betty Ford, who underwent a mastectomy in 1974, was personally fitted for one. “My life seems to be a series of going from breast to breast,” she joked to Lillith in 1994 of developing “Nearly Me” after creating Barbie, the first adult doll with breasts. “As soon as the women buyers for Nearly Me found out that I had created Barbie they raved. It surprised me. Barbie had a very very strong place in their growing up years.”
Gerber told USA Today in 2023 that Handler staffed her company almost entirely with women who had undergone mastectomies and used silicone and foam for “Nearly Me” to have the design be both comfortable and confidence-boosting. “In the early ’70s, women were made to feel like criminals for having had breast cancer. It was very much hidden from your friends,” Gerber said. “She went out to major companies like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, and said, ‘You have to set up a separate salon for women who’ve had mastectomies, and they will be fitted for these and they will be treated with respect.’”In the early ’70s, women were made to feel like criminals for having had breast cancer. It was very much hidden from your friends. She went out to major companies like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, and said, ‘You have to set up a separate salon for women who’ve had mastectomies, and they will be fitted for these and they will be treated with respect.’”
She continued, “She had a very clear idea of wanting to not just give women a product, but give them back their dignity.”
Greta Gerwig, who directed the 2023 movie Barbie, also called Handler’s invention of “Nearly Me” “poetic” and “beautiful” in an interview with USA Today in 2023. “She invented inserts into a bra that you could put on after you’ve had a double mastectomy, so you could still feel like yourself,” Gerwig said. “That felt beautiful and poetic. Barbie has always been held up to be a sort of unrealistic physical ideal: impossibly beautiful, and impossible to achieve for a mere mortal. I thought, ‘That is so interesting because the woman who created her physically went through a transformation in a completely different direction.’”
Gerwig also noted that “Nearly Me” is a reminder that “Barbie is something that was invented. (Handler) is not Barbie. Margot’s not Barbie. Nobody’s Barbie.”
What was Ruth Handler’s net worth?
Ruth Handler’s net worth was $100 million at the time of her death, according to Celebrity Net Worth.
For more about Barbie, read Robin Gerber’s 2010 book, Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her
. The book—which was called a “stirring biography” an a “fine study of success and resilience” by Publisher’s Weekly—follows the true story of Mattel co-founder and Barbie inventor Ruth Handler and how she invented one of the most popular toys of all time. “It is a fascinating account of how one visionary woman and her product changed an industry and sparked a lasting debate about women’s roles,” the publisher’s description reads.
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