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July 14, 2009updated 10 Jan 2016 3:59pm

Barbie and Ruth

By Spear's

Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her
Robin Gerber
HarperBusiness, 288pp

Review by Peter York

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H ave you had it with Barbie? There’s been a lot of high-end Barbiana from the cultural studies/women’s studies crowd over the past twenty years or so. It’s mostly been about ‘representations’ of women and whether Barbie was a credit to the regiment — or seriously reactionary.

And about objectification and the Beauty Myth and the social conditioning of little girls and the rest of it. All this is tremendously important in the great scheme of things, but I feel I know all I need.

There’s another theme of Barbiana, of course — because there’s nothing so queer as folk — and that’s the extraordinary appeal she has for a certain kind of gay boy in Fashionland. It’s like the attraction Thumbelina Minogue has for The Boys. I’ve read several pieces now about the lad who’d rather collect hundreds of Barbies and their outfits than kick a ball around a muddy field. What’s the psychosexual dynamic of that, one might ask? Does the collector identify with Barbie, or what exactly?

It’s worth mentioning here that Barbie’s measurements, scaled up to real woman size, have been estimated at 39-21-33. Though curvy, she predates to some extent the currently fashionable ‘boy-with-breasts’ configuration — with impossibly long legs — rather than the shape of 99 per cent of real women.

The cover of Robin Gerber’s Barbie and Ruth has a very plasticised orange-tan Barbie leg on the cover and ‘Barbie’ in big pink 1950s mock-script, while the ‘Ruth’ is smaller and more modest. You’re meant to think this is a Barbie book (even the subtitle encourages you here: ‘the story of the world’s most famous doll and the woman who created her’).

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They’re leading on Barbie because she’s a global cultural product and playing down her creator Ruth Handler, because she was just a businesswoman, and largely forgotten. So where does it actually belong on the bookshop shelves, apart from the groaning board of biography?

It’s actually a business book, primarily an account of the development of the world’s largest toy company, Mattel, seen through the history of the couple who built it from nothing from the 1940s on. Which, for me, is miles newer and more interesting than any amount of analysis of Barbie’s place in the world.

The genesis of Barbie and her presentation to the New York Toy Fair in 1959 is pretty much over by the end of chapter 1 (of 19). From then on it’s the story of Ruth Mosko (shortened from Moskowicz when her father arrived as a Jewish refugee from Warsaw in 1907), her large and extended family and her husband, Elliot Handler.

In many ways it’s the classic Jewish family business story, with an entrepreneur who understands markets, backs innovative designers, could sell sand to the Arabs, and borrows family money to make it work. And even drives the truck with the first big consignments. Except that the entrepreneur’s a woman.

R uth Mosko was clearly the ballsy, pushy, sweary business leader, and her husband Elliot, the notional president of Mattel, was the sweet, shy, talented designer of everything from dolls-house furniture to wartime jewellery to every kind of inventive toy. Even in the immigrant Jewish communities in America, where women often worked alongside their men in family businesses — certainly to a far greater degree than in comparable Gentile groups — Ruth Handler was clearly exceptional, for her energy, vision, big-picture ambition and all-round… chutzpah.

Although Mattel was named after her husband (the ‘el’) and another man in the business, Matt, and although she acknowledged 1940s expectations by taking the secondary Vice-President role, it wouldn’t have happened without her. Ruth — small, attractive, bosomy — borrowed some more money, cracked a few heads, sacked some laggards and moved on.

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Mattel was the Handlers’ second business. Their first, making modish Lucite (early transparent plastic) furniture and house accessories, grew fast in the late 1930s while Ruth was still working as a secretary at Paramount in LA and her husband was designing and making the pieces in a small former Chinese laundry. But they got an older, more experienced partner (Russian/Jewish) when the business looked rocky and he eventually offered to buy Elliot out for $10,000 in 1944, a fraction of what he might’ve bargained for.

And in one of those fateful conversations, Ruth Mosko told her husband to take the money and run, because she wanted to grow her sideline, Mattel. A year later (1945), the original business had gone under, but Mattel was launched on its extraordinary growth trajectory. I wish Gerber had charted it, but some years were clearly amazing by any lights; sales doubled or even trebled year on year. Then they first broke the $100 million barrier, and so on up.

Who would you have cast to play Ruth in the Hollywood version? One or two decades earlier it would have been Joan Crawford in her Mildred Pierce period. Hollywood would have written out the Jewish themes and played down the real dynamic of a successful marriage where the woman took all the initiatives.

Later it became really difficult, deeply conflicted. Precisely as Ruth was recognised as a latecomer/feminist heroine in the 1970s — a pioneering female entrepreneur (like Mrs T, Ruth might’ve been an example to her sex but she preferred to work with the boys), she was caught up in a fraud case. The charge was that she’d been party to a conspiracy to inflate Mattel’s numbers and the share price. In 1979, in her sixties, Ruth was prosecuted for fraud and only just avoided prison.

During this perfect storm period she had two mastectomies and invented a new breast prosthetic, Nearly Me (all that experience with plastic fabrication). In the 1990s her son Ken, the origin of Barbie’s companion, married with children, turned out to be gay. Ken, who’d been a quiet child drawn to classical music, staging plays, and making art movies — a child-out-of-time — was diagnosed HIV positive in 1990 and died in 1994.

He’d resented the Ken doll, said he hated the materialism promoted by Barbie and Ken, and worried about the negative effect the toys had on children’s self-images.

I f the culture and social psychology of business, the history of wealth and its creators (no MBA chartist stuff) does it for you, then Barbie and Ruth fits in nicely alongside, say, the history of the Bronfmans. Gerber isn’t exactly an exciting writer but she knows this world (she’s the next generation of a similar Jewish family and a business academic specialising in Great Lady studies), and she knows what matters. But I’d still like to be clearer as to whether Ruth Handler was a piece of work or just a brave broad who cut a few corners.

But if you’re drawn to gorgeous, campy colour photographs of Barbie and her costumes over the years, you’ll be deeply disappointed. Astonishingly — given the expectations the cover sets up and the fuzz frontispiece aside — there are no photographs of anything at all. 

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