Friday, June 05, 2009

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

Truthfully, I almost cannot believe I read this book. This is so out of the norm for me and perhaps why I was initially attracted to it. Reading about Barbie dolls just really does not rank high on my list. For whatever reason, I saw this book in a Barnes & Noble and my interest was piqued. Then, on a recent trip to the library, I saw a copy sitting on the shelf and decided to snatch it up. (Maybe it's just that I didn't want to have to PAY to read about Barbie . . .?) At any rate, I did read it and I was glad I hadn't bought it and I'm feeling strong, passionate thoughts about it but am hesitating to write any of them down!

For starters, let me say that the author of this book, Robin Gerber, is a stellar writer. She had me at hello. The introduction to Barbie and Ruth pulls you right in. The concluding paragraphs of each chapter are so well crafted that you almost feel like you are watching an A&E Biography. You know a commercial break is coming but you're willing to sit through multiple interruptions merely to get to the end of the story. Fabulous writing style that I found extremely appealing.

In my opinion, this book is really not so much about Barbie as it is about Barbie's creator - Ruth Handler. However, if you left Barbie's name off of the title and entitled it "Ruth Handler" you probably wouldn't sell very many copies. No one would really know who you were talking about. So put a Barbie leg on the cover and include the name in pink font. Viola! You have people's attention. (She had mine, right?) Well marketed.

Also, entirely in my opinion, Ruth Handler is really not so much a woman worth a great deal of respect or admiration. If you don't like Martha Stewart's "go-get-um-no-matter-WHAT" attitude, you will not appreciate what Handler was all about: money and power and the power that having money brings. Although Mrs. Handler gave birth to two children, Barbara and Ken (names sound familiar to you?), she really did not mother them at all. Gerber does not deny this fact in her writing. Gratefully, she states the situation plainly. Ruth Handler despised being a stay-at-home mom and hated housework of any sort. Her idea of a good dinner, according to this book, was some toast with cream of mushroom soup poured on top. She claimed that if she had remained a SAHM, she would have lost her mind and gone insane. Now this is a declaration I can certainly sympathize with to a degree, but on the whole I find it hard to respect when it comes to completely disregarding your children. The one child that Ruth Handler cared for at all was Mattel, a company she founded and the child which ultimately produced the Barbie doll. (And aren't we all grateful?)

This book documents Ruth's beginnings from being the tenth child born to an immigrant family, to her deathbed. Ruth's own parents chose not to raise her, but instead gave the responsibility of her care over to Ruth's older sister, Sarah. Sarah provided the example to Ruth of what it meant to be a woman and given the fact that Ruth's own mother chose to make herself scarce, it's hardly any wonder that Ruth handily turned the care of her own biological children over to nannies, babysitters and eventually her older sister, Sarah (who seemed destined to raise everyone else's children as she was unable to have any of her own).

Ruth's story is sad, really. She focused on business. She did not have a relationship with her own children, Barbara & Ken, until they were adults themselves. She was headstrong and independent to the point of pushing away all female friends (until Mattel pushed Ruth herself away) and ended her life frustrated by the way she felt like society had treated her. Did Ruth meet with amazing successes? Yes, absolutely. For a female in a then male-dominated business world - (pardon the phrase) - she done good. She had a good business head about her. She worked on instinct. Never mind the fact that the instinct was sometimes considered illegal. That's not her fault. Just you remember that.

But I find it pathetically sad when her business child (Mattel) fades away and she finds herself contemplating suicide. I find it pathetically sad that she held on to a note which her daughter wrote to her as a young child, basically calling on her mother to act like a mother. Ruth simply couldn't find a way to mother and nurture her children. That's sad, folks. Really, really sad. The plain facts, as I see them in this book, are that Ruth cared more about Mattel than personal relationships. She didn't care how people behaved. Morals were questionable and not important so long as business was booming. She paid for all of this personally as her health declined while the stresses of the business and legal worlds took notice of improprieties. Sure, she had wealth. She had prestige. She had the respect and admiration of people climbing the corporate ladder. But for all of this, she did not have love in the truest sense, nor did she have certain peace in the end. I find this horrific.

I only had one Barbie doll growing up and it had belonged to my mother before me. I found a picture of it online. It's the one standing to the right of the zebra swimsuit which you see pictured front and center.

I wish I had kept the doll just because I'm sure it's worth a great deal these days. But then again, I'm glad I do not have it. Barbie isn't necessarily an objectionable character to me, really. However, knowing the story behind the doll makes me even more aware of where true value and worth comes from.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13-14

Barbie is not my confirmation of true worth. Nor is Ruth Handler my inspiration for true success.

With grateful thanks that these two things are so,


Marks of Faith said...

Hmmm...interesting. My Mother and her 3 sisters all had the Original Barbie doll...I know they wish they'd kept them.

Sounds like Ruth's life was very sad. Lessons for us all to learn.

Barbara H. said...

I was about 4 when Barbies first came out, and my family nickname was Barbie. I never thought to ask my mom if that was my nickname before the doll came out or after. But Because of that I always had a soft spot in my heart for Barbie. I wish I had kept my first one, too -- I had the one in the zebra-striped swimsuit. I used to keep every little thing, though, and in a desire to curb that I gave my Barbies to my four younger sisters. I imagine there is not a shred of them left, but if there is, it's somewhere in my mom's attic.

That's a terribly sad story, though, about Ruth. How ironic to make a popular toy for girls and then neglect her own girl.

B said...

The book sounds interesting, but it definitely doesn't sound like it would alter my negative opinion of the Barbie doll.

Stephanie Kay said...

Wow! I've never taken issue with Barbie but hearing of the sad life of her creator doesn't endear her to me. Just another example of people abandoning what is truly valuable (family) to pursue what is empty (wealth & power). So sad.

Emily said...

Haha, this sounds like an interesting read.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Very interesting but not at all surprising to me, unfortunately.

I did play with Barbies a little bit as a child, but I think I always preferred books, adult company, or playing outside to dolls. : )

Stacy said...

Fascinating review. I used to play with my mom's barbies...they had interchangeable wigs which I thought was kind of funny and the most stylish 50's clothes. I never knew there was a woman behind barbie, I just thought it was a toy company. Umm, did you say toast and cream of mushroom soup? Disgusting. I'll keep an eye out for this one at my library and tell my mom about it.

Ronnica said...

What a sad story.

BruceandBarbara said...

If you ever want the original Barbie's autograph just ask!

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