The True Story Of Barbie’s Creation: Who Invented Her? Which Real-Life Woman Inspired Her?

Yes, Margot Robbie isn't the only life-sized Barbie
Barbie’s origin story is at the heart of Greta Gerwig’s 2023 live-action film. Here, we explore the story behind the doll, including the woman who invented her and the woman who inspired her. Image via Warner Brothers.

Greta Gerwig’s live-action adaptation of Barbie has cemented the peroxide-blonde silicone doll as one of history’s most beloved fictional figures. Yet, underneath the saccharine visage and hyper-pop dance numbers, the upcoming film is soaked in unexpected existential undertones, a concept we haven’t seen Barbie explore in her 64 years or 200 careers.

Indeed, Margot Robbie’s Barbie certainly isn’t all Malibu dream house, with the film centring on the doll’s journey to uncover the truth of the universe, and in turn, discovering who she really is.

As many eagle-eyed fans noticed from the trailer, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Barbie actually meets her “creator”, and no it’s not Will Ferrell’s Mattel executive (although his Barbie film poster describes him as “mother”).

We’re not giving anything away as the scene is in the film’s trailer, however, spotting this moment does require a modicum of Barbie history.

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Towards the end of the main trailer (or at the 2:12 mark of the trailer if you’re that curious) Gerwig leaves an ‘IYKYK’ easter egg by including a voiceover of Cheers actress Rhea Perlman, who portrays Barbie’s inventor Ruth Handler in the movie.

“Humans only have one ending,” she begins. “Ideas live forever.”

Gerwig also included a frame of Barbara Handler in the trailer, also known as the real-life woman that inspired the Barbie doll and her technicoloured dream world. Handler appeared in a short sequence, sitting alongside Robbie’s cowboy Barbie at a bus stop.

Forget Robbie being a life-sized Barbie, Handler has the distinct privilege of being the original and authentic Barbie. And unlike her plastic counterpart, Handler’s origin story isn’t as well known.

In the spirit of Barbie’s release, and to impress the crowd you’re watching the Barbienhiemer double feature with, we’re bringing you the full story of Barbie’s invention, from the woman who created her to the woman who inspired her.

Who Invented Barbie?

American businesswoman Ruth Handler (1916-2002) is the inventor and creator of Barbie.

Barbara Millicent Roberts, as the fashion doll is officially known, was created after Handler noticed the apparent gap in the market for children-focused, three-dimensional figurines. At the time of Barbie’s creation, the majority of children’s dolls were either porcelain, paper or resembling babies themselves.

Barbie’s creation was inspired by the mid-Century German fashion doll, Bild Lilli. Handler observed European children’s penchant for the adult-like figurine and decided to create her own ‘woman’ doll for American children. After returning from a trip to Europe, Handler debuted her creation at the American International Toy Fair.

Barbie’s name is taken from Ruth’s daughter, Barbara Handler, who was 18 years old at the time of Barbie’s creation. Handler’s introduction of Barbie was a pioneering invention that helped position women, although silicon, as existing outside of patriarchal confines.

Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel Toys Inc. and creator of the Barbie Doll holds a Bardie that was created for the 40th Anniversary party for the doll in New York City, February 7, 1999. The toy company is kicking off a year-long celebration of Barbie’s 40 years. (Photo by Jeff Christensen)

Who Is Ruth Handler?

Aside from being Barbie’s inventor, Handler is also the co-founder of toy manufacturing (and now entertainment) conglomerate Mattel.

Handler co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot in Los Angeles in 1945. The Handlers began their empire making furniture, before quickly refocusing their efforts to exclusively make toys.

Handler also invented Barbie’s best male friend doll Ken, though we’re sure the Barbie film will explore the lore of Ken being Barbie’s boyfriend. Ken was named after the Handler’s son, Kenneth, making the plastic relationship between Barbie and Ken less salubrious than the rose-tinted universe may have you expect.

Handler and her husband left Mattel in 1978 after being charged with fraud and false reporting to the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Handler passed away aged 85 in 2002. She was succeeded by her daughter and her husband, (her son, the real Ken, tragically passed away in 1994).

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are seen rollerblading on the set of “Barbie” on June 28, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by MEGA/GC Images)
When Was The First Barbie Doll Released?

The first iteration of Barbie—the blonde ponytail black-and-white swimsuit doll—was unveiled in 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. The date of the fair, March 9, is used as her official birthday.

Upon her release, Barbie sold 350,000 units within her first year. At the time, she was sold for a mere USD$3 (Dhs11), with an original version of the doll now worth over USD$27,000 (Dhs99,170).

That price is nothing compared to the world’s most rare and most expensive Barbie, the Barbie® by Stefano Canturi doll. This Barbie features an opulent necklace adorned with white diamonds and a highly collectable one-carat Australian Argyle pink diamond. She was sold for USD$300,000 (Dhs1,101,930), with all the proceeds going to charity.

In case you were in need of any further Barbie tidbits to impress your friends with opening weekend, the best-selling doll of all time is the ’80s Totally Hair Barbie (which Robbie emulated for the film’s Mexico City premiere).

With Barbie going to the moon before humanity and able to purchase her own house before women were allowed to open bank accounts, her contributions to the cultural zeitgeist are insurmountable, whether you love her or hate her.

Watch the trailer for Barbie below:

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This article originally appeared on Grazia International.