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Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story by Ruth Handler, Jacqueline Shannon

The history of Barbie, created by Handler and her husband Elliot, cofounders of Mattel Toys, is recounted here. The doll, which was "born" in 1959 and whose "big boobs" aroused controversy at the time, enjoyed such commercial success that the market was expanded to include her boyfriend, Ken, siblings and friends-all with their own wardrobes and accessories. Assisted by Shannon (Why It's Great to Be a Girl), Handler also bitterly recalls her 1970 mastectomy and forced resignation from Mattel in 1975, after she was indicted for preparing false financial records.--Library Journal - Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber

Biography of Ruth Handler and the story of Barbie.

Cofounder of the Mattel Company, Ruth Handler and her husband, Elliot, turned the toy industry upside down, not only with the 1959 creation of Barbie and the subsequent introduction of boyfriend Ken but also with Hot Wheels and prescient advertising tie-ins to the Mickey Mouse Club. Yet the behind-the-scenes journey is just as fascinating as the public persona: born the tenth child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Ruth was raised by her sister—and, early on, recognized the talent of her husband as a designer. Motherhood was not her natural state of being, though she named both dolls after her children.

After being forced out of Mattel in the 1970s, Ruth then founded a second company, “Nearly Me,” producing prosthetics designed for women who had undergone mastectomies—just like her. Tragedy, unfortunately, continued to strike the family; son Ken died of AIDS in 1994, and Ruth herself lost her battle with cancer in 2002. ...a fascinating account of entrepreneurial ups and downs. --Barbara Jacobs, Booklist

Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour (1998) - DVD- with Ruth Handler, Susan Stern

53 minute DVD documenting the subject of the Barbie doll.

Female Force: Ruth Handler - The Creator of Barbie by Tara Broeckel, Neil Alexander

For over fifty years, Barbie has helped young girls come of age in the midst of an ever-changing social climate - but what do we really know about her? Female Force: Barbie tells the story of how America's favorite fashion doll emerged from the seedy underworld of German sex symbols and cigarette shop gag gifts to become one of history's most iconic women.

Ruth Handler: From Lilli to Barbie (Titans of Fortune) by Daniel Alef

The American dream comes in many shapes and colors, limited only by one's imagination and work ethic. Ruth Handler, the daughter of poor Russian-Jewish èmigrès, is a prime example. She turned a Swiss toy sex doll into a quintessentially American icon -- Barbie -- one so well-known that more than a billion have been sold.

Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll by M. G. Lord

If you think Barbie is just a child's plaything, you'll think again after reading this fascinating, funny, and far-reaching biography of the pointy-breasted, slim-waisted, high-arched gal who changed the way we think about dolls and ourselves. Lord, who writes for Newsday, approaches the story like an investigative reporter. She unearths Barbie's low origins as Lili, a slutty doll sold to German men as a gag gift, and goes on to cover the Barbie story on numerous fronts: creative, commercial, and sociological. She interviews Barbie's designers, critics, collectors, even a woman who has undergone more than 50 cosmetic surgeries so she can look like a Barbie doll.

...As Lord puts it, "For every mother that embraces Barbie . . . there is another mother who tries to banish Barbie from the house." Cheerleaders, career women, bulimics, and mythmakers can all hang their hats--with justification--on Barbie's well-coiffed head.

Lord, for example, makes a convincing case that Barbie is a pagan symbol, a queen surrounding herself with such drones as the penis-less Ken. We can buy that easily enough, but when Lord describes Barbie as "an incarnation of the One Goddess with a thousand names . . . an archetype of something ancient, matriarchal, and profound," she might be going just a wee bit over the top. The photographs are terrific, too, especially, the close-up of the original Barbie with her sly eyes and arched brows. --Ilene Cooper - Booklist

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin PhD, Jean Kilbourne EdD

Constantly, American children are exposed to a barrage of sexual images in television, movies, music and the Internet. They are taught young that buying certain clothes, consuming brand-name soft drinks and owning the right possessions will make them sexy and cool—and being sexy and cool is the most important thing. Eating disorders and body image issues are common as early as grade school.

Levin and Kilbourne stress that there is nothing wrong with a young person's natural sexual awakening, but it is wrong to allow a young person's sexuality to be hijacked by corporations who want them as customers. The authors offer advice on how parents can limit children's exposure to commercialized sex, and how parents can engage kids in constructive, age-appropriate conversation about sex and the media. --Publishers Weekly -Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved

Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence by Kathy Merlock Jackson, Mark I. West. (2010).

From its original base in California to Orlando, Florida, eastward to Japan, hopping to France, and then Hong Kong, Disneyland culture has spread worldwide. The influence of Disneyland culture goes beyond the boundaries of these parks; Jackson and West develop the theme of how and why.

Barbie Culture (Cultural Icons series) 1st Edition, by Mary F. Rogers. (2000).

Mary Rogers, who is Professor of Sociology at the University of West Florida, develops the Barbie theme to explain its significance in popular culture. Rogers finds issues in some interpretations of Barbie "reproducing ethnicity and gender" in a coarse, potentially damaging way, noting a level of "racism and sexism."

However, Rogers view is broader, more challenging, and ambiguous. Barbie's complete sexual identity is not so well-defined, ad her social class is also somewhat ambiguous, her place of privilege not a necessity for her role in the play-lives of girls. Barbie is though, a consummate consumer with a body that is "the perfect metaphor of modern times."

Eating Disorders: Everything You Need to Know (Your Personal Health), by Dr Jim Kirkpatrick, Paul Caldwell . (2004).

Healthy food abounds in the U.S. and other developed countries. Why do girls and young women develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating? These can lead to illness, psychological anguish, organ damage and in its ultimate steps, death. Barbie's role in body image dissatisfaction is also touched on.

Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal: An Analytical Interpretation of the Barbie Doll in Popular Culture 1st Edition, by Kristin Noelle Weissman . (1999)

Kristin Weissman connects the marketing of the Barbie doll from through the (then) present (1999), and the building of an enduring American icon. Why the cultural obsession? Weissman fills us in.

Photo credits: Barbie portrait -CarrieBee
First Edition Barbies, 1959 - Сергей Бережной

Page updated: January 7, 2016

The History and Psychology of 52-year old Barbie

This page has been reviewed and edited by Eualalee Thompson, MSc, PGDip, a trained and practicing psychotherapist.

"The diminutive yet arrestingly voluptuous doll" (Gerber. 2009).

Barbie, since 1959, has captured the imagination of girls.

“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world...” so sings Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group, "Aqua", in their breakthrough 1997 sex-tinged parody pop single on Barbie and Ken. Barbie has pervaded pop culture.

The average American girl has ten Barbies, and there are two Barbie dolls sold somewhere in the world every second. Barbie is a beloved toy for most girls, and for a subsection of those enamored with this feminine icon that seems to have everything, she is more than a doll, she is an obsession.

The 2016 National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention will be held in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, starting July 27 and promises to draw more than 1,000 dressing as Barbie (In the Barbie World. 2015, Aug 1).

Islam fundamentalists, in contrast, take an oppositional stance to this icon of upwardly successful, independent, single, sexual Western model of femininity, with countries like Saudia Arabia and Iran going so far as to banning the doll (Lord, M. 2004; RT. 2012, Jan 16).

Barbie's Potential Affect on Girl's Psyches

Much has been said about Barbie and her effect on girls’ psyches. Some are very defensive of this childhood icon. One mother said that she played with Barbie dolls growing up, is very well adjusted, has no body-image issues or resultant eating disorder, and so asks "So, what is the big deal?" On the other side of the fence, sociologists Brym and Lie ask in the book Sociology Your Compass for a New World, "The message Barbie conveys to girls is that the ideal woman is defined primarily by her attractiveness to men." (Brym, Lie. 2009).

Susan Albers, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues states that "Barbie has taken a lot of heat for damaging women's body images", and while she at one time felt animosity towards Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, after reading Handler’s biography felt differently, recognizing the psychological needs to drove Handler to bolster her own damaged self-esteem through what she considers ambitious though somewhat wreckless pursuits (Albers, S. 2009, Dec 3).

Barbie's idealized figure in a children’s icon, drew criticism for the damage it might do to children when it was first released (Albers, S.) and the idealized image that Barbie projects is an unattainable body image for most (only about 100,000 women in the world have similar proportions.) (Bry, Lie. 2009).

Playing with Barbie dolls as children, some say, can result in eating disorders for teen girls, among other psychological distresses. Commenting on Barbie’s idealized proportions, under the subheading "Barbie Doll Syndrome" Dr. Jim Kirkpatrick and Paul Caldwell state in the book Eating Disorders: Everything You Need to Know, “If the dolls are used as standards for comparison, discontent or even despair may be the result.” (Kirkpatrick, Caldwell. 2004).

While playing with Barbie dolls as a girl does not guarantee a future body-dissatisfaction complex or necessarily precipitate an eating disorder, there may be some truth to the idea that Barbie is part of the commercial package contributing to the surge in eating disorders over the past 50 years — about how long Barbie has been around. Of course, most mental health issues have no single cause and are usually multifaceted in their etiology.

Some Barbie Facts:

  • The average American girl has 10 Barbie dolls.
  • Only one in 100,000 women in the world have a comparable body.
  • Barbie was introduced in 1959.
  • The Barbie doll was an inspiration from German sex doll called Lilli (since 1956).
  • There is some evidence that Barbie dolls may actually contribute directly to dissatisfaction with self-body image and lead to eating disorders.
  • Barbie and Ken were named after the children of Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie.
  • Handler’s son Ken was homosexual and died of AIDS.
  • Ruth Handler lost her breasts to breast cancer in the 1970s and established a company that manufactured breast prosthetics.

  • The History of the Barbie Doll

    Ruth Handler and her husband started a toy manufacturing company that produced a then-controversial toy known as the Burp Gun, which Handler went to lengths to defend as appropriate for children.

    Then Handler noticed how her daughter played dolls with her friends, and instead of playing house with baby dolls, chose adult fashion paper dolls. The girls used the dolls in roles other than that of motherhood (motherhood was the typical way in which dolls had been historically used by girls in the past). The girls were projecting their own futures and dreams when coming of age as women through their pretend play with dolls (Cloer, L. 2009).

    On a trip to Europe, a German doll known as Bild Lilli or Lilli, which had been created in 1956, inspired Ruth Handler. Lilli was patterned after a raunchy German comic strip, and was dressed as basically a streetwalker or prostitute.

    German sex-doll, prositute, Lilli patterned after, predecessor of Barbie.
    German gag doll, Lilli.

    Psychologist and author, Susan Adler, PhD states, "The German doll was actually fashioned after a prostitute and was a toy for men. Until this time, dolls were baby dolls and did not have the body of an adult woman." The German gag doll, Lilli, could be found in most bars in Germany between 1956 and 1959.

    This was exactly what Handler was looking for; she was looking for a doll with a woman's figure that could show off grown-up clothes. Lilli, the streetwalker prostitute comic strip, doll and R-rated pinup, became Barbie doll for young girls. Upon her return to the U.S., Ruth reworked Lilli’s design, called it Barbie, and introduced her to the world in 1959.

    Bald Lilli dolls, German gag-sex dolls that inspired the form of the Barbie doll.

    Handler purposely toned down the sexual features of the Lilli doll in creating Barbie, but mothers were still reluctant to accept the new doll for their daughters. The toy company Mattel, which transformed from a picture frame company to that of a toy manufacturing company, got around this issue by marketing the doll directly to children via television, which by now had become a somewhat ubiquitous feature in the American home and routine.

    The first Barbie commercial ran in 1959 on the Mickey Mouse Club, home of the original American cartoon icon, forging a bond with Mattel and Disney (Merlock, K. West, M. 2010). Barbie caught on, and by the 1960s was making a million dollars a year; a million dollars a year has turned into a cumulative billion Barbie dollars for what was once Handler’s Mattel.

    The first 1959 Barbies, shown here, were patterned after the German Lilli dolls which appeared in bars and pinups throughout Germany since 1956.
    1959 First Edition Barbie Dolls

    Commentary on the Barbie Doll

    Barbie "may be the most potent icon of American popular culture in the late twentieth century," says Newsday writer M. G. Lord in Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Booklist, in a review of Lord’s “biography” describes Barbie as a “pointy-breasted, slim-waisted, high-arched gal who changed the way we think about dolls and ourselves.”

    Some other commentaries about the Barbie doll are:

    “The Barbie doll is not just the world's most popular toy, she's a Rorschach test, revealing attitudes about sexuality, body image, gender roles and creativity,” states Barbie Nation – An Unauthorized Tour, in an in-depth documentary coverage of the subject.

    Robin Gerber in the book, Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her (2009) describes Barbie as “the diminutive yet arrestingly voluptuous doll”. Barbie was first unveiled at the 1959 Toy Fair and sales gained momentum until today when 90 percent of American girls, as well as girls from 150 other countries, own at least one of these icons.

    When Barbie dolls began to gain popularity, feminists fought against it, claiming that the Barbie doll encouraged girls to look at themselves either as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers. However, Mary F. Rogers in the book Barbie Culture, describes Barbie as "a creature of privilege" who isn't content to stay home, look pretty and clean house. Some of Barbie's diverse character roles have been an Olympic athlete and competitor, an air force pilot, a boutique owner, a fashion designer, a presidential candidate, a veterinarian, NASCAR driver, pilot, even a paleontologist, over 100 professions in all.

    One Barbie aficionado said of her childhood years, "When I played with her, I could make her do and be anything I wanted. Never before or since have I found such an ideal method of living vicariously through anyone or anything." (Weisssman, 1999. p. 72). The name of the woman who made this statement is Cindy Jackson. Jackson has been using multiple plastic surgery procedures to restructure her appearance to that of a Barbie doll.

    Barbie, Body Image and Eating Disorders

    If Barbie were the height of a real human, her dimensions would be, by some estimates, 38-18-34. That figure can be found in only around 1 in 100,000 women. Some have described her figure as "anorexic", when you interpolate her dimensions to a five-foot six-inch woman. A headline from London's (serious) newspaper, The Time, highlighted a UK study conducted by British researchers of the University of Sussex and the University of the West of England stating, "Skinny Barbie blamed over eating disorders." The study was based on the reactions of girls, aged five to eight, to the impressions of their own body images after seeing images of various figures, including Barbie dolls.

    "The results showed that girls aged five to six were more dissatisfied with their shape and wanted more extreme thinness after seeing Barbie doll images than after seeing other pictures. For those aged six to seven the negative effects were even stronger."

    Notably, previous to the Barbie doll, the only time girls could have the opportunity to see the naked breasts of women was in National Geographic magazine. "Barbie's breasts were kind of fun and a revelation", said one commentator who bonded with Barbie in the 1960s.

    A documentary about Karen Carpenter and her eating disorder featured Barbie Dolls
    Karen Carpenter who died of anorexia in 1983 at the age of 32.

    Ruth Handler and Barbie

    Interestingly, a now-banned documentary about Karen Carpenter by film director Todd Haynes depicted the Carpenters as Barbie Dolls throughout the entire documentary. Karen Carpenter eventually died from anorexia, and the causal link the director draws between Karen Carpenter’s anorexia and Barbie has been described as "quite discerning" by some of the many commentators on Haynes’s defunct film.

    Susan Adler, a psychologist specializing in eating issues, weight loss, and body image, as well as author of the book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, notes that her personal perception of Barbie changed after reading Robin Gerber’s book on the subject. Adler further describes the pained life of Handler, whose ambitions were realized with the Barbie doll, but who conducted her business rather ruthlessly.

    Adler comments that lack of social connections and friendships or connections with children may have blinded Handler to the realization of the impact that children’s toys can have on kids’ social development. To her, they were dollars and cents. Barbie and Ken were named after Handler’s own children (the real Ken became a homosexual and died of AIDS).

    It is ironic that the creator of the doll which had the ideal female figure — 38-inch breasts and a 24-inch waistline, if interpolated into an actual female — lost both of her breasts to breast cancer after Barbie had become a standardized American icon.

    After breast cancer, Handler went on to form and devote her energies to Ruthton Corp, using her skills in shaping plastic to create the first breast prosthesis created by a woman. Her development of this product (Nearly Me) helped women who had lost a breast or breasts to cancer feel more comfortable with themselves, and positively changed the lives of women in this respect(Handler, R., Shannon, J. 1994).

    Owning and Playing With Barbie, and Analysis of the Barbie Persona

    "Everybody has a Barbie story" is a sub-theme of a "Studio 360" radio-aired documentary about Barbie from a series on American icons. Children don’t think of Barbie as necessarily a sexy icon, but often depict her in the role of the heroin, the doctor, the veterinarian, the Smarty girl who is independent enough even to ditch Ken when she outgrows him (Lord, M. 2004; Behind the Barbie-Ken Breakup. 2004, Feb 16).

    On the other hand, a British study documented that Barbie Dolls are regularly decapitated, mutilated, microwaved, or run over by children.

    One recalled how they had a "giant box of naked Barbies." There was one mother who recounted how the children "would all take [Barbie's] clothes off, reflexively "like they really didn't know what they were doing." One mother who was a girl in the 1960s reflexively asked, "Who could resist Barbie and the Rockers?"

    Susan Stern in the documentary Barbie Nation notes that Barbie has a wholesome American girl personality, but is also described in terms of her sexuality and what was expected of woman sexually at that time. Women were expected to be sexual, but also a little bit "dippy" (not Stern's adjective), that is, bubble-headed (as in the Doris Day-type of Hollywood movies). Barbie never got married; she was a career woman who relished her independence. Barbie is described as being very destabilizing to the middle-class American. She was along the lines of "Sex and the Single Girl", and is noted as displaying an "anti-marriage" manifesto.

    Barbie, having no husband, instead reflects the materialistic tradition of American society, surrounded as she is by a never-ending array of personal belongings and beauty aids. The marketing of Barbie dolls, then, involves not just selling the doll itself (or herself), but keeping the customer returning for more Barbie goods.

    Concerning advertising for Barbie dolls, marketing specialist, Kristin Noelle Weissman, notes in the book, Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal: an analytical interpretation of the Barbie Doll in popular culture: "People who internalize these ads and purchase the products because of them identify with a cultural image or iconic presence in society." (Weissman, K. 1999).


    Teryl Henderson, a student of Southwestern University, in her graphic online presentation, "Believing in Barbie: Buying, Being and Building the Icon", sums it up very nicely: "When Barbie is played with by girls, she communicates a message of thin, big-breasted modelesque beauty."

    As girls grow older, there is a threat that they will recall images of Barbie as the sole standard of being beautiful, and therefore imagine themselves in the image of Barbie. Because Barbie is largely unattainable to a girl or young women (as it is for many), a misunderstanding of beauty occurs. The purchasing of objects, cosmetic procedures, or ideologies seem to be a few of the ways that girls and women can reach the high standards of beauty that Barbie has set before them. "When people make relentless attempts at becoming as Barbie-like as possible, they are trying to be Barbie — their representation of an ideal of beauty." (Henderson, T.).

    We have come to a time, notes "Studio 360", when Barbie may not be sexual enough. Today, Bratz dolls, noted by Dianne Levin in her book, So Sexy So Soon, are described as "raw caricatures of sexual females", with "sassy attitudes." (Levin, D. 2009).

    It can be ascertained, then, that those who desire the Barbie image (or any doll, for that matter) are people who seek out and focus only on their own perceptions of what they consider "perfect” or "ideal," thereby encapsulating a certain persona in real life.

    References to Barbie page

    1. Albers, S., PsyD. (2009, December 3). A Barbie World Don't Hate Barbie Because She's Beautiful. Psychology Today blog. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/200912/barbie-world

    2. American Icons: Barbie. (2009, February 13). A Radio Series from Studio 360. WYCN.. www.studio360.org/2009/feb/13/barbie/

    3. Barbie nation – An Unauthorized Tour. Bernal Beach Films. Official site: https://www.barbienation.com/

    4. Behind the Barbie-Ken Breakup. (2004, February 16). Bloomberg Business. https://www.bloomberg.com/bw/stories/2004-02-16/behind-the-barbie-ken-breakup

    5. Brym, R. Lie, J. (2009). Sociology: Your Compass for a New World, Brief Edition: Enhanced Edition. Independence, KY: Cengage Learning.

    6. Cloer, L. (2009). Barbie Turns 50. Vision Insights and New Horizons. Retrieved August 5, 2012. https://www.vision.org/visionmedia/society-and-culture/barbie-dolls-barbie-turns-50/13166.aspx

    7. Dobson, R. (2006, May 14). Skinny Barbie blamed over eating disorders. The Times. London.

    8. Gerber, R. (2009). Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.  New York: Harper Business.

    9. Handler, R., Shannon, J. (1994). Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. Longmeadow Press.

    10. Henderson, T. Believing in Barbie: Buying, Being and Building the Icon. Communications Studies, Southwestern University. Retrieved August 5, 2012.  https://people.southwestern.edu/~bednarb/su_netWorks/projects/henderson/icon.html

    11. Kirkpatrick, J., P. (2004). Eating Disorders: Everything You Need to Know. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books.

    12. In the Barbie World. (2015, August 1). Travancore Talk. https://www.travancoretalk.com/article/in-the-barbie-world

    13. Levin, D. Kilbourne, J. (2009). So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids . New York: Ballantine Books.

    14. Lord, M. (2004). Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Sydney: Walker Books.

    15. Merlock, K. West, M. (2010). Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.

    16. New Day Films: Barbie Nation. Bernal Beach Films. https://bernalbeach.com/barbie-nation/

    17. No veiled threat: 'Destructive' Barbie off Iranian shelves. (2012, January 16). RT. https://www.rt.com/news/iran-barbie-ban-toy-915/

    18. Rogers, M. F. (1999). Core Cultural Icons: Barbie Culture. London: Sage Publications.

    19. Scarano, R. (2013, September 14). Twenty Banned or Otherwise Unavailable Movies You Can Only Watch Online. Complex. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/09/unavailable-movies-watch-online/

    20. Weissman, K.N. (1999). Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal: An Analytical Interpretation of the Barbie Doll in Popular Culture.  Boca Ratan: Universal Publishers.

    More Reading On Barbie

    Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story

    Lenore Wright “The Wonder of Barbie: Popular Culture and the Making of Female Identity,” in Essays in Philosophy (January 2003).

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