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Ruth Handler Is the Key to Barbie. What To Know About the Doll’s Controversial Founder

7 minute read

When Greta Gerwig embarked upon her journey to create a story about a doll with no personality or inner life, she turned to Barbie’s history for inspiration. Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, led the filmmaker through an “immersion” experience—or Barbie bootcamp—that outlined the iconic doll’s long history, from her debut at the Toy Fair in New York City in 1959 to her status as the world’s most recognizable toy with over a billion dolls sold.

Gerwig latched onto the relationship between Barbie’s inventor, Ruth Handler, and Handler’s daughter Barbara, for whom Barbie is named. During an interview for TIME’s recent cover story on Barbie, Gerwig told me, “A Barbie movie is only ever going to be a mother-daughter movie on so many levels because it was Ruth Handler and Barbara—that was the relationship.”

And so Handler had to be in the movie. She first appears as a mysterious woman in a 1950s-style kitchen tucked away inside Mattel’s headquarters. Later, the film reveals that Handler is in fact the creator of Barbie and a God-like figure to Margot Robbie’s character, one of many Barbies who resides in idyllic Barbie Land. Played by Cheers alum Rhea Perlman, Gerwig portrays Handler as a kind yet imperfect deity. Here’s everything you need to know about Barbie’s creator and how she factors into the Barbie film.

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How Ruth Handler invented Barbie

Ruth Handler revolutionized the toy industry when she invented a mainstream doll with the proportions of an adult female. Before Barbie came along, girls mostly played with baby dolls, an act that conditioned them to be mothers. In the early 1950s, Handler had the rather revolutionary idea that playing with dolls modeled on grown-up women would help girls imagine what they might be when they grew up. Handler drew inspiration from her daughter Barbara, who would play dress-up with paper dolls. She would eventually name her iconic doll Barbie, after her daughter.

Handler had already co-founded Mattel with her husband in 1945 to sell picture frames before they pivoted to doll furniture and, eventually other toys. But when she pitched the idea of an adult-looking doll to the company’s executives, they balked: No mother, they argued, would buy their daughter a doll with breasts. The idea stalled until 1956 when, on a European vacation, Handler saw a German doll called Bild Lilli in a store. The doll was based on a comic strip about a pin-up with a voluptuous figure and was designed as a sexy trinket for soldiers during World War II. Handler brought one of the dolls back to the U.S. to prove to Mattel’s designers that they could produce something similar.

Read More: Why It Took 64 Years to Make a Barbie Movie

Barbie debuted at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York City wearing the now iconic black-and-white striped bathing suit that Barbie star Margot Robbie dons in the opening of the film. The fashion doll immediately became a hit, and buoyed Mattel to success. Fans clamored for Barbie to have a boyfriend, so Ken (named for Handler’s son) was introduced in 1961. Barbie eventually transitioned from a fashion doll who just played dress-up into a career woman—who played dress-up as a doctor or astronaut in addition to a fashionista.

In her book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Living Doll, author M.G. Lord argued that Barbie is 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 writes. “For most baby boomers, she has the same iconic resonance as any female saints, although without the same religious significance.”

Out now: TIME’s new special edition about Barbie is available at newsstands and here online

Ruth Handler was a complicated woman

As Barbie hints, Ruth Handler was a complex lady. In 1978, Handler and several other Mattel executives were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy, mail fraud, and giving the Securities and Exchange Commission false financial statements for the company. She pleaded no contest. She was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service.

Handler had a second act in the 1980s selling a totally different product. During a scene in Barbie Handler references her mastectomy, and the Barbie creator did indeed battle breast cancer. She saw a need for life-like prostheses designed by and for women and sold a product called Nearly Me. She led a team of eight women, most of whom were breast cancer survivors, who would visit department stores and train sales staff to fit customers. Her sales tactics included what she called her “strip act,” which involved removing her shirt to demonstrate that nobody could see or feel the difference between her real breast and her prosthetic one. People magazine featured her in such a pose. She even fit First Lady Betty Ford for the prosthesis after her mastectomy. Handler eventually sold the company to Kimberly-Clark in the 1990s.

Toward the end of her life, Handler reflected on her life as the inventor of an adult-shaped doll and a pioneer in prosthesis. According to the Los Angeles Times, she was fond of saying, “I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”

Ruth Handler as God of Barbie Land

In the Barbie movie, the Ruth Handler role is a spiritual one. She shows up in a retro kitchen randomly tucked away in Mattel headquarters to comfort Barbie during a moment of existential crisis. She helps her escape the Mattel suits who want to put Barbie back in a box. At the time, Barbie doesn’t know who the woman is, but it is clear they have a spiritual connection.

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Toward the end of the movie, Ruth reveals her identity to Barbie, insisting that of course a woman was Barbie’s original inventor—despite the fact that the Mattel boardroom is now currently dominated by men. She cracks a joke about now being beatific—referencing both her struggle with cancer and her money troubles with the government—but says that Barbie was designed not in the image of any one woman, but to be aspirational.

Barbie and Ruth have a conversation that echoes the heavenly train station moment in Harry Potter in which Dumbledore helped Harry realize he had the option to live or die. Similarly, in a glowing space, a holy Ruth councils Barbie on what it would mean to become fully human, face mortality, and leave Barbie Land to live in the real world.

Read More: We’re Ignoring the Real Reason Barbie Might Dominate the Box Office

In my interview with Greta Gerwig for TIME’s cover story on Barbie, the writer-director told me that Ruth and Barbie touch hands twice in the movie, once over tea and again at the end of the film. Gerwig modeled the hand touch on the fresco of God giving life to the first man that appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here, Ruth as God instills life not in first man but in woman—specifically a doll who has long been a symbol of what womanhood ought to be (for better or worse). When Barbie leaves Barbie Land, she is leaving a matriarchal version of Eden to enter a much messier real world. It turns out, in Barbie anyway, god is a woman and a rather complicated one at that.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com