Ruth Handler envisaged Barbie, the doll that became a role model for millions of little girls. Now a brand name more recognisable than the American President or the Queen of England, Barbie doll has sustained nearly eight decades of feminist uprisings and questions to remain relevant in today’s times. On March 9, Barbie celebrated her 60th birthday—the longevity a signal of her ceaseless popularity.
Strong-headed, restless, and independent describes Ruth Handler in a nutshell. Born to Jewish immigrant parents, her family was unorthodox in their habit of engaging women in work from an early age; this is in stark contrast to prevailing norms, when women only had domestic roles and pushed to a corner.
By the time she graduated, Ruth had already been a secretary to a law officer, tended to tables, and concocted drinks at a bar. A valedictorian at high school, she married her high school sweetheart, Elliot Handler, after graduation.
While on a trip to Germany, Ruth noticed the dolls sold by a German adult company; she saw them best suitable as a girl’s plaything, in lieu of the scrappy paper dolls with domesticated names, such as Chatty Cathy, Wetsy Betsy, and others. Through the new three-dimensional doll, Handler wanted to embody a woman who could be a role model for girls. This idea led to Barbie’s creation, named after Ruth’s daughter Barbara.
Barbie doll arrives
“Barbie doll” was launched with much fanfare at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. However, people initially regarded her with much scepticism. Targeted at parents then, since they would be the eventual buyers, Barbie received a tepid response. The curvaceous doll alarmed mothers, who saw her as “cheap and vulgar”.
Sensing the need to target the right audience, Ruth executed a brilliant marketing stroke—she launched commercial ads for Barbie doll when the Mickey Mouse Club House show was running. Ruth bought 52 weeks of slots to advertise Barbie directly to the target audience—the kids. The rest, as they say, is history.
Soon, the response to Barbie was out of this world. The year it was launched, Mattel raked in more than a million dollars, selling over 350,000 dolls at $3 apiece.
Barbie zoomed onto the top of every girl’s wish list. Little girls would beg their parents to buy them a Barbie doll, which they could dress up and play with. More than that, Barbie served as a role model for many of those girls—a female trailblazer who lived her life on her terms, much like Ruth herself.
The many faces of Barbie
Barbie was also given a strong supporting cast to bring out her character—Ken was specifically introduced as her boyfriend, and not husband or brother, to ensure Barbie was not seen as a domestic woman.
With sleek cars and fashionable clothes, Barbie became the ultimate aspirational female, adored and imitated by millions of kids around the world. Ruth was also aware of the rapid social changes in the US after the war and modelled newer versions of Barbie accordingly. Till date, Barbie has been cast as a doctor, an astronaut, an athlete, a firefighter, and even as a UNICEF ambassador.
The Barbie doll, which started off as a lifelike model of the paper dolls kids used to play with, turned into a money-making juggernaut, surpassing the sales of every toy known on the planet and cementing the status of Mattel brand. Within six years of her launch, Mattel became part of the illustrious Fortune 500 companies in the US. In 1970s, Mattel’s revenue crossed $300 million, largely owing to breakthrough sales of Barbie doll and her many variants.
Impact of Ruth’s Barbie
Ruth offered the children of this world a product that they grew up with. For many adults now, seeing a Barbie doll instantly brings back fond childhood memories, such is their strong sense of attachment with the doll.
Ruth created an icon, which was so quintessentially American that it wound up in the American Time Capsule in 1976, containing the choicest selection of items that define America and its culture. For a toy that enjoys more popularity than the Queen of England or the American President, Ruth single-handedly revolutionised the toy industry and instilled in billions of kids that “you can be anything”.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.