Living doll

Jan 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

Ruth Handler

Over the course of her 43 years of existence, Barbie — the blandly beautiful, generously endowed iconic doll — has achieved a kind of Vulcan mind-meld with American society, silently infiltrating and embracing, like a symbiotic virus, every cranny of the national psyche, inhabiting our literature, films, art exhibitions, and Web sites, while simultaneously serving as a slender lightning rod for our sociological and cultural debates. Like Elvis, it seems, Barbie is everywhere.

Patterned after Lilli, a 1950s German sex doll made for men, Barbie sprang, not quite fully formed, from the imagination of Mattel toy company co-founder Ruth Handler in the mid-1950s. Handler had observed her seven-year-old daughter Barbara playing not with the pinkish plastic infant dolls ubiquitous at the time, but rather with adult paper dolls. Handler detected what she considered a void in the doll universe. "There was no adult doll with which a child could truly dream her dreams in the '50s," she tells filmmaker Susan Stern in the perceptive 1998 documentary Barbie Nation.

Aided by her designer husband, Elliot, Handler created one: a six-ounce, 11 1/2-inch tall, raven-haired, long-limbed, large-breasted teenage fashion-model doll dressed in a striking black-and-white striped bathing suit and stiletto heels. Handler named her Barbie, after her daughter. The Mattel brass blanched: "They explained to me that there was no way we could make the doll with breasts."

When Handler persisted, her colleagues eventually relented. Introduced at the 1959 American Toy Fair, Barbie was an instant success (original retail price: $3), quickly becoming the company's cash cow. Mattel rolled out additional Barbie models (Twist 'N Turn Barbie, Malibu Barbie), while creating various roles for her: baby sitter, student teacher, airline stewardess, and nurse at first; doctor, astronaut, soldier, rock star, and presidential candidate later. Not forgetting hundreds of Barbie outfits. And a dream house. A red convertible. Wigs and jewelry and thousands of other accessories. Gradually, a retinue followed: paramour Ken (named after Handler's son), best friend Midge, little sister Skipper, cousin Francie, and Stacey, Casey, P.J., Christie — en toto, close to 40 friends, six close relatives, and seven pets by the 1990s.

Internationally adored, the doll nonetheless generated controversy, principally among feminists in the early '70s, who often cited the impossible ideals Barbie conveys: no job unattainable, no bauble denied, and a body, if blown up to real-life proportions of 5 feet 6 inches, that would measure 39-23-33 and weigh a feathery 110 pounds.

Handler rushed to her stepchild's defense. "I thought if she was too pretty, then they [little girls] would feel that she wasn't the one through whom they could role-play," Handler contends in Stern's film. "But with each passing year we made her a little prettier, and she just kept going up and up in sales and satisfaction. The consumer wanting that doll is more important than the theories of some adults who have their own negative feelings."

As for the resounding hullabaloo regarding the doll's expansive chest, Handler explains, "I felt that little girls, growing up, have enough difficulty adjusting to their own breasts as they start to develop. And I felt that if they got a grown-up doll with breasts that it would ease their feelings about themselves."

Born Ruth Mosko in Denver, the youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants, Handler and hubby Elliot relocated to Los Angeles in 1937, establishing Mattel eight years later and eventually hurtling into the financial stratosphere with Barbie. But rapid expansion and some dubious decisions sent Mattel into a nosedive in 1970, the same year Handler underwent a radical mastectomy. "When I lost my breast, I thought I lost my femininity," she confides to Stern.

Hobbled by her physical/emotional setback, Handler, who ran the firm's business side, endeavored to conceal Mattel's dip in profits in an effort to maintain its stock price. When in 1972 the problems came to light, that price plummeted, prompting the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch an investigation. In 1975, Handler resigned — "pushed out," she says — followed six months later by Elliot. Indicted by a federal grand jury in 1978 on charges of falsifying financial records, she pleaded no contest, was convicted, and received a 41-month sentence (suspended) that required community service.

By then, Handler was deep into a new project, heading Nearly Me, a firm that designed customized breast prostheses, marketing more than 1 million of them before Handler sold the company in 1991.

Meanwhile, even sans Handler, Barbie sales soared--according to a Mattel spokeswoman, "Two Barbie dolls are sold every second somewhere in the world" — with the doll seeping into every cultural crevice: a Warhol portrait, a Todd Haynes film, comic books, magazines, a Hall of Fame, a national convention, and on and on. More than 200 Barbie clubs flourish in the United States. "It's like a cult, actually," Handler, who died in April, age 85, suggests to Stern. "These people are really so into Barbie. But it's not phony — it's real."

Almost famous - Our Annual Salute to the Late Near-Great and Unjustly Obscure Michael Yockel writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]