Ruth Handler, the grandmotherly figure played by Rhea Perlman in the new Barbie movie, offers compassion and wisdom to Margot Robbie in a moment when her blissful doll-come-to-life faces an existential crisis. Handler seems to know Barbie better than she knows herself, as she should. It’s a moment in which the doll literally meets her maker.
Perlman, best known as the sarcastic waitress Carla from Cheers, appears in the Greta Gerwig–directed film as Ruth Handler—a real-life legend in the toy business who helped turn Mattel into a global powerhouse, in large part thanks to Barbie, introduced in 1959. The real Handler died in 2002 at the age of 85, so her appearance in the movie is more whimsical than realistic. But the movie does included several details that are genuine. The full truth of her life, in many cases, is even stranger than even the most die-hard Barbie fans may realize.
Perlman’s character tells Barbie that she had a mastectomy. That’s true; Handler had Breast cancer in the 1970s. She also used the plastics know-how she’d gathered from years in the toy business to devise prosthetic devices for other women like her and launched an entirely new business, Nearly Me, which still sells products today.
The movie version of Ruth Handler also bitterly alludes to her being forced out of Mattel due to a clash over financial problems. This is played for laughs, but it’s based on truth as well. The scandal engulfed not just Handler but others who were employed at the toy manufacturer. “4 Ex‐Officers of Mattel Among 5 Indicted on Conspiracy Charges,” read the 1978 headline in The New York Times.
The Times reported that Handler had been accused of falsifying “internal business records concerning earnings and sales in 1971, 1972 and 1973 so that they could influence the market price of Mattel stock.”
Handler was a trailblazer in an era when society relegated most women to the role of housewife, and her business acumen made her a formidable executive and strategist. Yet as Robin Gerber writes in her 2009 biography, Barbie and Ruth, “She had also allowed padding and other falsifying of the company books, and her protestations of innocence, her refusal to take responsibility, made the prosecution determined to push for a severe sentence.”
Handler ultimately dropped her resistance and pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $57,000 in fines and five years of probation, with the judge mandating 500 hours of community service per year. In Barbie and Ruth, Gerber writes that the judge told Handler her actions were “exploitive, parasitic, and disgraceful to anything in society.” The author further characterizes the combined 2,500 hours as “the longest public service sentence ever handed out.”
Handler could have gotten 41 years in prison, but she still found her comparatively light sentence to be severe. She wanted to create a giveaway program of her Nearly Me prosthetics for underprivileged cancer patients who might otherwise be unable to afford them, but the judge rejected that proposal. According to Gerber, after participating in scrupulously tabulated charity work that she found “humiliating,” Handler was eventually assigned the task of using her business know-how to give other convicts job training. The program was considered a success, and in 1982, the judge agreed to cut short Handler’s sentence by a year and a half.
Handler’s creation of Barbie isn’t closely documented in the movie, which takes a more fanciful approach to the toy universe. Various Barbies and Kens exist in a separate dimension where life is idyllic and the problems of the real world seldom interfere.
In the real world, Ruth married her husband, Elliot Handler, in 1938, and they started a business making home goods, often utilizing plastics. In the 1940s, they entered a partnership with industrial designer Harold Matson to create a new business manufacturing picture frames, according to the Los Angeles Times. Using the same materials, they branched off into another enterprise creating smaller furnishings—this time for dollhouses.