Life & Culture

The Barbie movie contains a nod to the doll's Jewish origins

Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler is played by Jewish actress Rhea Pearlman


Barbie's feminist Jewish origin story is explicitly laid out in the eagerly-awaited film about the doll.

The character of Ruth Handler, the businesswoman who created the doll, plays a key role in the film as Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, learns about ‘real life’ and how to deal with it.

The deeply satirical Barbie, written by Greta Gerwig and her Jewish partner Noah Baumbach, sees the character of ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ forced to leave the idyllic female-run Barbie Land when, to her horror, she discovers not only have her perfect feet gone flat, but she is getting cellulite. She needs to head to the Real World to make whoever is playing with her happier so that her cellulite disappears and her feet once again can slip into heels.

But in the Real World, she learns that all she has been told about Barbie making the world a better place for girls and women is untrue. Accompanied by her boyfriend Ken, she is shocked to be leered at and talked over, and to discover that it is still very much a patriarchy. Ken, meanwhile, is thrilled.

The male bosses at Mattel, the company which makes Barbie, are determined to catch her before she wreaks havoc both in the Real World and Barbie Land. It is while running away from them that she discovers a kindly lady called Ruth – played by Cheers legend Rhea Perlman.

Colorado-born Ruth Handler (maiden name Moscowitz) was the daughter of two Polish Jewish immigrants and founded Mattel with her husband Elliot Handler and their partner Harold Matson. The name came from the two men’s names but it was Ruth who was to create their biggest seller – Barbie.

Ruth, a mother of two, had seen her daughter Barbara play with friends and realised they preferred more grown-up dolls than the babies they were normally handed. While on a holiday to Switzerland, she came across a German doll called Bild Lilli which was based on a cartoon about a blonde seductress. The dolls were used by men to give to their girlfriends to signify they wanted to meet. But in Ruth’s hands the doll – which she called Barbie after Barbara – came out in 1959 with the slogan, ‘You Can Be Anything’.

Inspired by the strong women who had brought her up, Ruth didn’t want Barbie to be simply a wife and mother but a career woman. Barbie was an astronaut nearly two decades before a woman went into space and there was a Barbie president in 1992. Ken, was the name of Ruth’s son.

The film also alludes to Ruth’s tax issues. In 1974 – having gone through breast cancer which had inspired her to create a fake breast for women who’d had a mastectomy – she and her husband were forced to resign after being investigated for producing fraudulent financial reports. Blaming her illness for making her ‘unfocused’ on business, she pleaded no contest to a charge of fraud.

The appearance of Ruth is not the only Jewish element to the film – at one point Will Ferrell, who plays Mattel’s CEO – responds to allegations that his board (made up of all men) is not inclusive by saying, "Some of my best friends are Jewish."

David Heyman, the British Jewish hit producer, with credits on the Harry Potter and Paddington films is also part of the crew.

The film also stars several Jewish actors; as well as Perlman it features Ariana Greenblatt, whose mother is Jewish and father Puerto Rican, as a precocious teen who has thrown away her Barbie, Jewish Filipina actress Ana Cruz Kayne as Barbie Supreme Court Justice and Jewish trans star Hari Nef as Barbie Doctor. Brit Kingsley Ben-Adir, whose family all converted to Judaism, also stars as one of the main Ken figures in the film.

The film is expected to be one of the biggest of the year in a massive weekend for cinema which also sees the release of Oppenheimer, the Christopher Nolan film about Jewish physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer who became known as the "Father of the Atomic bomb."

Barbie is released on Friday, July 21

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