They held her accountable for everything from anorexia to Nicole Brown Simpson‘s bad marriage, but what they often overlooked is that Ruth Handler, creator of that leggy little doll with the disproportionate rack and co-founder of the Mattel Toy Co., lived her life as a feminist firebrand. An irrepressible entrepreneur, the first woman on the Federal Reserve Board, a woman admittedly ill-suited for the ’50s model of housewifery, Handler maintained to the end that she was prosecuted with particular vigor for securities fraud in 1978 because of her sex. “Bring down a woman, a famous woman, an uppity woman who had the nerve to climb to the top,” she wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, “just think of the reputations that could be made.” (She also protested that she‘d put faith in her accountants: Arthur Andersen and Co. was auditing Mattel’s books.)
Whatever was made later of Barbie‘s ridiculous figure, Handler had fought hard to introduce a doll with measurements to a puritanical industry: Several American manufacturers rejected her retooling of the Lilli doll she’d found in Switzerland, itself modeled after a German cartoon-character prostitute, before Mattel (named for Handler‘s husband, Elliot, and his business partner, Harold Mattson) found a willing factory in Japan. With her high-heeled feet and rooted hair, sexy little Barbie inspired little girls just as it later did transgressive artists, who confined Barbie to fishbowls and added strap-ons to her interchangeable outfits. Some say Handler was horrified; they were wrong. When I visited her Century City apartment in 1998, her coffee table featured several books documenting the efforts of imaginations who had found in Barbie a model for social critique. I asked if she was offended. “Of course not,” she told me. “That’s what I made her for.” In 1970 Handler had the first of two mastectomies, and after Mattel forced her out in 1975, she devoted her efforts to raising awareness about breast cancer — including, of course, a new invention, the Nearly Me prosthesis. “I‘ve lived my life,” she was fond of saying, “from breast to breast.” Handler died last Saturday at the age of 85. But Barbie, as author M.G. Lord noted, is forever.