Thursday, March 12, 2009

Barbie's inventor: "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices."

Ruth Handler was the entrepreneur and marketing genius who co-founded Mattel and created the Barbie doll, one of the world's most enduring and popular toys. She passed away in 2002.

Barbie, a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust, became not only a best-selling toy with more than 1 billion sold in 150 countries, but a cultural icon analyzed by scholars, attacked by feminists and showcased in the Smithsonian Institution.

Although best known for her pivotal role as Barbie's inventor, Handler devoted her later years to a second, trailblazing career: manufacturing and marketing artificial breasts for women who had undergone mastectomies.

Born Ruth Mosko, she was the youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants who settled in Denver. Her father was a blacksmith who deserted the Russian army. Her mother, who was illiterate, arrived in the United States in the steerage section of a steamship. Her mother's health was so frail that Handler was raised by an older sister.

When she was 19, she left Denver for a vacation in Hollywood and wound up staying. Her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, followed her west and married her in 1938. She worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios while he studied industrial design at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena).

When Elliot made some simple housewares to furnish their apartment, Ruth persuaded him to produce more for sale. They bought some workshop equipment from Sears and launched a giftware business in their garage, making items such as bowls, mirrors and clocks out of plastic. With Ruth showing the product line to local stores, sales reached $2 million within a few years.

In 1942 they teamed up with another industrial designer, Harold "Matt" Mattson, to launch a business manufacturing picture frames. Using leftover wood and plastic scrap, they later launched a sideline making dollhouse furniture. Within a few years, the company turned profitable and began to specialize in toys. It was called Mattel, a name fashioned from the "Matt" in Mattson and the "El" in Elliot.

In the late 1950s, Elliot was so preoccupied with the development of a talking doll--eventually marketed as Chatty Cathy--that he was of little help to Ruth when she came up with an idea of her own.

Noting their daughter Barbara's fascination with paper dolls of teenagers or career women, she realized there was a void in the market. She began to wonder if a three-dimensional version of the adult paper figures would have appeal. Why not sell a doll that allowed girls, as she would later say, to "dream dreams of the future"? This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Handler believed, it would have to have breasts.

When she took the idea to Mattel's executives, who were men, they sneered that no mother would buy her daughter a grown-up doll with a bosom. "Our guys all said, 'Naw, no good,' " she recalled. "I tried more than once and nobody was interested, and I gave up."

Inspired by German Doll

She let the project idle until 1956 when, during a European vacation, she spied a German doll called Lilli in a display case. It had a voluptuous figure, reminiscent of the poster pinups that entertained soldiers during World War II. Handler brought the doll home to Mattel's designers and ordered them to draw up plans and find a manufacturer in Japan who could produce it.

Handler's dream made its debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Named for her daughter, "Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model" had a girl-next-door ponytail, black-and-white striped bathing suit and teeny feet that fit into open-toed heels. Mattel sold more than 350,000 the first year, and orders soon backed up for the doll, which retailed for $3. "The minute that doll hit the counter, she walked right off," Handler said.

By the early 1960s, Mattel had annual sales of $100 million, due largely to Barbie. The company, then based in Hawthorne, annually turned out new versions of Barbie as well as an ever-expanding wardrobe of outfits and accessories befitting the new princess of toydom. Soon enough Barbie sprouted a coterie of friends and family. Ken, named for the Handlers' son, appeared in 1961; Midge in 1963; Skipper in 1965; and African American doll Christie, Barbie's first ethnic friend, in 1969. The first black Barbie came much later, in 1981.

Under pressure from feminists, Barbie evolved from fashion model to career woman, including doctor, astronaut, police officer, paramedic, athlete, veterinarian and teacher.

Over the years, the toy inspired Barbie clubs, conventions, magazines and Web sites. Barbie was immortalized by Andy Warhol, preserved in time capsules and inspired conceptual artists who spiked the doll's hair or posed it in pickle jars to make statements.

M.G. Lord, author of "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Living Doll," called Barbie the most potent icon of American culture of the late 20th century.

"She's an archetypal female figure, she's something upon which little girls project their idealized selves," she said. "For most baby boomers, she has the same iconic resonance as any female saints, although without the same religious significance."

The National Organization for Women and other feminists targeted Barbie in the 1970s, arguing that the doll promoted unattainable expectations for young girls. If Barbie was 5 foot 6 instead of 11 1/2 inches tall, her measurements, would be 39-21-33. An academic expert once calculated that a woman's likelihood of being shaped like Barbie was less than 1 in 100,000.

(Ken was shaped somewhat more realistically: The chances of a boy developing his measurements were said to be 1 in 50.)

Handler said she did not take offense at the feminist broadsides and often noted that successful women had played with Barbie and told her the doll helped them enact their aspirations. Even artists' tortured interpretations of Barbie didn't bother her. "More power to them," said Handler, who kept a gold-plated Barbie in her Century City high-rise.

"My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be," Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography. "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices."

by Elaine Woo, L.A. Times

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