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Get your best pink outfit ready. The Barbie movie is about to be available for purchase on select streaming platforms (including Amazon Prime Video and Google Play) on September 12. So, if you haven't made several trips to the theater this summer to see your favorite plastic ladies, it's time for a quick refresher on some of the most important, but lesser known, characters in the film. Sorry, but for right now, Ken is just Ken, and Barbie is just Barbie.
If you've already seen the movie, you'll know that Ruth Handler (played by actress Rhea Perlman) is a big part of Barbie's emotional growth and journey. TBH, it makes sense given Ruth's real history with the doll. She was one of the co-founders and former president of the toy company, Mattel, but ended up leaving the company in the 1970s after a financial scandal (more on that later).
If you don’t know Ruth’s backstory, it’s understandable to be kinda confused about why she's such a big deal in the film, the jokes about her IRS dealings, and her heartwrenching cameo.
You also might just want to know more about Barbie's illustrious inventor, her life, and inspirations for the doll. So, Women's Health has gathered all the information you might want to know about Ruth Handler and where is she now.
She was a Polish immigrant.
Ruth’s family was originally from Poland, but her parents moved to Denver, Colorado, when she was a child, according to The Washington Post. She was the youngest of 10 kids.
Her dad was a blacksmith, and her mom arrived in the U.S. in the steerage section of a steamship. Ruth’s mom’s health was frail, so she was actually raised by her older sister, the Post reported.
She was married to Elliot Handler.
Ruth left Denver to visit Hollywood when she was 19... and she ended up staying there. Her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, followed her out west, and the two got married in 1938, the Post says.
Together, the two launched a giftware business called "Mattel" (a combination of the names "Matt" and "Elliott") out of their garage. The early Mattel sold things like bowls, mirrors, and clocks made out of plastic. The company reached $2 million in sales in a few years, the Post says.
Eventually, the company branched out into toys like ukuleles, toy pianos, and toy planes, according to PBS.
She had two kids, Barbara and Ken.
Yep, Ruth ended up naming two of her iconic dolls after her kids. However, the similarities between Ruth's children and her dolls end with their names. Barbara Handler has said in the past that she doesn't resemble her namesake in any other way.
How did Ruth Handler invent Barbie?
The idea for Barbie and Ken stemmed from a family Europe trip in 1956, PBS reported. Barbara, then still a teenager, saw a doll that looked like an adult woman in a store window in Switzerland and was mesmerized. The curvy doll, known as a Bild Lilli doll, was very different from most girls' dolls in the US, which tended to be baby dolls. Ruth quickly got to work.
The first Barbie doll hit the market three years later, along with outfits that could be purchased separately. Sales exploded and the company was valued at $10 million when it went public in 1960, per PBS. It took Mattel three years to catch up with demand for Barbie. The company even had to add factory capacity and warehouse space to meet demands, according to CNN. The doll became an archetype for the American woman, according to TIME.
She had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.
Ruth wasn’t just a pioneer in the toy world. She also launched a line of first-of-its-kind breast prostheses after going through breast cancer and having a mastectomy. The new silicone prosthetics were more lifelike and comfortable for women, and Ruth would travel around selling her product to women like her.
“When I had my breast removed, it was very tough for me,” she told The Times. “I was in the public eye; I bought every prosthesis that was on the market, and I had a custom breast made, but wasn't satisfied.”
In fact, Ruth made sure the prosthetics emulated the feeling of real breasts so much so that she would regularly open her shirt during interviews and ask reporters to feel her breasts to guess which one was real. Her line was affordable (between $98 and $130) and included over 70 different sizes, with right and left breast options.
So, what did that joke about Ruth and the IRS refer to?
In 1972, Mattel sales started to drop. In February of 1973, the company issued two conflicting reports about earnings within three weeks, per The New York Times. The first report said they would have strong earnings, and the second said the company lost $32.4 million in the fiscal year.
Mattel stock tanked and, in October 1975, the Handlers resigned from their positions as co-chairmen of the board. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated Ruth and other former Mattel executives and alleged that senior management had issued statements that were deliberately false to give an illusion that they had impressive sales growth in 1971, 1972, and 1973.
“It appears that Mattel's reported pretax income of approximately $34 million for fiscal year 1971 may have been overstated as the result of the misstatement, in the approximate magnitude of $15 million to $20 million,” the SEC report said, per The New York Times.
In 1978, Ruth and four former Mattel employees were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for conspiracy, mail fraud, and making false financial statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, The New York Times reported. Ruth pleaded no contest and received a $57,000 fine and 2,500 community service hours, per People.
Ruth is supposed to be a god-like figure in Barbie.
If you've already seen the film, you'll know that Ruth and Barbie's connection is intentionally spiritual throughout the film. Greta Gerwig modeled scenes between Barbie and Ruth off of a portrait of God reaching for man in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, per TIME.
In the film, Ruth also says that Barbie is not meant to be any real woman, but aspirational. You'll have to watch (or rewatch) the movie to see what impact that has on Margot Robbie's Barbie.
Is she still alive?
Unfortunately, Ruth died in April of 2002 while in the hospital for complications from a colon surgery she'd had three months earlier. The surgery was a result of her colon cancer. She was 85.
What was Ruth Handler's net worth?
At the time of her death, Ruth’s net worth was $100 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth. It's unclear what happened to her fortune after she died.
Now that you know Ruth's whole back story, you might want to go watch Barbie one more time. You know, just so you can be ~in on the joke~ this time around.
Which actress plays Ruth Handler in the movie?
Beloved Cheers actress, Rhea Perlman, took on the iconic role of Barbie creator Ruth Handler. She used to be happily married to Danny DeVito but the two separated in 2012, per Today.
When does Barbie hit streaming?
Barbie is supposed to be available to stream on Max at some time this fall, but no official date has been set. You will also be able to purchase Barbie for $29.99 on select streaming services, and catch Ruth Handler in action starting on September 12. Here's where you can purchase the film so far:
However you stream, seeing Ruth in the Barbie film will make you want to cry (and also probably call your mom).
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