On April 29, 2002, the woman who created Barbie died. I guess I missed the news that day. A New York Times op-ed written about Ruth Handler said that “perhaps Barbie’s most significant attribute is her capacity to make people wonder what she would be like if she were really human. But to imagine Barbie as a real woman is to imagine her subject to time itself. It is to imagine her with real politics, real worries, a constant struggle with the memory of her own once ideal figure. Above all, it is to imagine her with a voice.”
I went to a play this past Friday night called “I Am Barbie,” and we no longer have to imagine Barbie with a voice. She spoke, via actress Ivy Castle-Rush in the titular role, and she had lots to say about her life & times.
Notes from the playwright, Walton Beacham, say:
“Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday by reminiscing about her careers, her relationship with Ken and other characters from her life, who express their own opinions about Barbie. An important motif is Barbie’s breasts as cultural icon, symbol and statement of feminine status, power and vulnerability. Two of the characters, Midge’s mother and Barbie’s creator Ruth, develop breast cancer.”
More on that in a sec.
The play was my introduction to Ruth Handler. I must admit, I’d never given Barbie’s creator much thought. Although more than 1 billion Barbies have been sold in more than 150 countries, and although Barbie even has her own Hall of Fame, in Palo Alto, CA, I never thought much about her. I have bought Barbie dolls, clothes, and accessories as birthday gifts for Macy’s friends, but knew nothing of Barbie’s story or that of her creator.
I do now.
Barbie was created in 1959 for Handler’s daughter, Barbara. (And yes, Ken is named for Handler’s son, which is kind of creepy when you think about Barbie & Ken’s relationship. Ewwww.)
Based on a German precursor named Lilli, Handler intended the Barbie doll to help girls “play out their dreams of adolescence and beyond,” hence Barbie’s trajectory from going to prom to going to college to getting married to going to the Moon. She’s embraced every fashion trend that’s come along, and she’s dabbled in nearly every career imaginable. In her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, Handler wrote: ”My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
I suspect that Handler was talking about more than just Barbie’s wardrobe.
I wonder, though, if Handler had any idea of how wildly popular Barbie would become. As the co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company, Handler clearly had a head for business, and could be considered a visionary in terms of the range that Barbie ended up encompassing. Did Handler know that Barbie would become a flashpoint for debates in psychology, cultural politics, feminism, fashion, women’s rights, and body image, just to name a few? Did she consider the firestorm of controversy Barbie could ignite, for example, just by her Teen Talk version uttering the phrase “Math class is tough?” That one really got the feminists going, and reinforced the stereotype that girls aren’t so great at math.
Well, I didn’t play with Barbies much as a little girl, and thankfully escaped her attempts to sway my feminist tendencies or influence my attitude toward math. In fact, my next-door neighbor growing up is a female statistics professor who taught classes, wrote textbooks, and became the chair of the math department. She gave me a tote bag once that says “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” When my middle-school speech class had to present a debate-style speech, mine was on the ERA, and I carried my notes in the girl-power tote bag. Take that, Teen Talk Barbie.
I missed the memo, too, on Barbie dictating body image. Like most of the world, I certainly have always thought her proportions are ridiculous — a real-world scale determined she would be 5 foot 6 with a 39-21-33 figure. Her internal organs wouldn’t even fit inside that package, for pete’s sake. Although she did undergo a makeover in 2000 to eliminate the waistline “seam” that made her poseable and reduced both her bust and her hips, she’s still a pretty unrealistic feminine ideal. However, it never occurred to me to let a doll determine how I feel about myself.
Maybe missing that memo allowed me to cope with losing my breasts to cancer, just as Handler did in 1970. She was diagnosed and underwent a bilateral mastectomy the year after I was born. To say that diagnostic and surgical progression has been made since then might be the understatement of the year. Facing her diagnosis the same way she approached the toy business — aggressively and successfully — Handler took on cancer awareness and made it her mission to ensure that women who joined the pink ribbon club after her had an easier time with it.
See, Handler faced breast cancer at a time in which real women had fewer choices than Barbie; the Women’s Health & Cancer Act that required insurance companies to cover reconstruction wasn’t enacted until 1988. Handler faced her post-mastectomy body-image demons head-on. And, dissatisfied with the limited prostheses options available at the time, she created her own.
Handler developed the Nearly Me breast form and founded Nearly Me Technologies, Inc in the mid-1970s after she discovered that the breast forms available at the time were “not comfortable, realistic, beautiful, or easily purchased,” according to the company’s website. Handler said, “When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”
”Until now,” Handler said in 1977, ”every breast [prosthesis] that was sold was used interchangeably for the right or the left side. There has never been a shoemaker who made one shoe and forced you to put both your right and your left foot in it.” She’s right about that.
Keep in mind that Handler was operating in an era in which there was little talk about breast cancer. She was determined to change that, however, and worked tirelessly toward early detection as well as helping post-mastectomy women reclaim a sense of normalcy. Handler personally fit First Lady Betty Ford with her prosthesis after Ford’s mastectomy in 1974. In promoting Nearly Me prostheses, Handler would unbutton her shirt during interviews and publicity jaunts and challenge a reporter or photographer to feel her breasts to determine which was real. Handler said that with high-quality prostheses, “a woman could wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out and be proud.”
In talking about her two careers–creator of both Barbie and Nearly Me–Handler was known to say, ”I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”
She knew what she was doing when she hired retired Mattel workers to design the Nearly Me prostheses. The same people who created Barbie’s breasts went to work, using similar manufacturing processes and materials. They discovered that using a polyurethane outer skin over silicone gel provided the structure and shape to match a real breast. And, just like with Barbie, no nipples were necessary.
So how does all this fit into a play? Very carefully. A review of “I Am Barbie” said that “the trickiest aspect is Beacham’s decision to include Ruth’s struggle with breast cancer as a recurring theme. One can see why Beacham felt it important to include this part of the real Ruth Handler’s story, relevant to the play’s theme of women’s body image.”
A breast cancer diagnosis, while dreadful, is real. Good things happen to bad people, and even Barbie gets the blues. Beacham did us all a favor by including this theme in the play. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face heavy subjects, and perhaps some audience members felt a bit squirmy as they saw Ruth’s and Midge’s struggles portrayed. With all the “pink-a-fying” and prettying up of the disease, it’s nice to see a gritty and realistic version.
So thank you, Walton Beacham for not shying away from breast cancer’s impact on women. And thank you, Ruth Handler. For inspiring a playwright to tackle the very real theme of breast cancer and body image. For proving once again that life does not end with a breast cancer diagnosis. For saying “that’s not good enough” to the options available post-mastectomy. Oh, and for creating Barbie, too.
P.S. Of course there’s a Pink Ribbon Barbie, whose marketing material says she’s “wearing a pink gown with a signature pink ribbon pinned to her shoulder, Pink Ribbon Barbie doll can help open a dialogue with those affected by breast cancer, while supporting this worthy cause!” She can be yours for the low, low price of $78.99 at amazon.com.