By Patricia O'Connell Barbies the world over are dressed in their most somber black suits and dresses this week (fully accessorized, of course). The dolls are so attired -- eschewing their customary evening gowns, bathing suits, and cocktail dresses -- to mark the passing on Apr. 27 of Ruth Handler, the woman who invented Barbie in 1959.
I confess to having been an unabashed Barbie fan since the age of 5. She and her cohorts (Midge, Francie, Stacie, and the ever-annoying Skipper) provided endless hours of entertainment for me and my playmates growing up. And if no one else was around, I could always grab a few dolls and amuse myself. (It was more work to have to pretend to be all the different characters in any scenario, but hey, a girl has to do what she has to do.)
Kudos to my enlightened mother -- a working woman who belonged to an early chapter of the National Organization for Women -- who saw nothing sinister in the anatomically impossible plaything. But some of my friends weren't so lucky. Their moms thought Barbie was "trampy," "cheap," or "ridiculous." (Women like these were probably the reason my mother eventually stopped going to NOW meetings.) These friends weren't allowed to have Barbies because she was a bad "role model."
ANYTHING I WANTED. I have never understood that. There was never any "Teen Mother Barbie" or "Crack Whore Barbie." No, there was Veterinarian Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Rock Star Barbie. My Barbie was a bride, a doctor, a stewardess, a figure skater, a Russian empress, a business woman, a movie star. The only limits were in my imagination -- and in Barbie's wardrobe. (Costuming a Russian empress with traditional Mattel fashion items wasn't easy, but it was possible.)
What always fascinated me about Barbie was that she could be -- and was -- anything I wanted her to be. By extension, I felt the same was true for me. That's the real magic of Barbie. Deciding which career she ought to pursue on any given day fired my imagination far more than pushing a baby-sized doll around in a carriage ever did.
This is why Handler said she invented the doll. "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be," Handler wrote in a 1994 autobiography. "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices."
ANTICANCER CRUSADER. Handler herself is a fine example. She co-founded Mattel with her husband, Elliot, and persevered with Barbie, even though the male ad executives at Mattel were unimpressed. She helped turn it into the world's best-selling doll and Barbie is a brand unto itself.
Handler and her husband were eventually forced out of the company. In 1978, she had some legal troubles, which she blamed on bad judgment resulting from her battle with breast cancer. But the illness had at least one positive result: Handler, unable to find a suitable prosthetic breast after her surgery, created one herself and founded a company to market it. She also became a crusader for cancer awareness.
Thank you, Ruth Handler, for giving young girls a harmless way to exercise their imaginations and live out their dreams. And for living out your own, and for your endless creativity and perseverance, you were a role model for grown women. With a gloved hand, I salute you. O'Connell is an editor for BusinessWeek Online who counts several limited-edition Barbies among her collection