Who’s Ruth Handler? The Barbie film doesn’t purport to know. By the point the largest movie of the summer season cuts to its credit—driving the excessive of 1 final self-referential jab—the late Barbie creator’s background stays principally unearthed; her tax scandal is batted away with a wink and a smile; her ethereal presence manifests in a world neither dream nor waking. She is an odd form of Charon on the River Styx of Barbie’s self-discovery. And because it seems, Barbie’s “irrepressible ideas of dying” are way more nuanced than such a punchline would possibly recommend, nor are they mere meme fodder from a very plugged-in advertising and marketing marketing campaign. They’re the story of Barbie itself, and of Ruth’s position as a deified mom and mentor. With Ruth as information, Barbie outgrows its field. Sure, associates, we lastly know what Barbie is about: It’s a story of dying, and of what comes after.
Deceased for greater than twenty years, Barbie’s Ruth is reincarnated within the physique of actress Rhea Perlman, who performs the stout and grayed girl with a grit aching to flee its tiny enclosure. Born Ruth Marianna Mosko to Polish-Jewish dad and mom in Denver, the Mattel co-founder designed Barbie as the primary “grownup” doll for kids, a vessel into which they could pump their hopes and projections (and, in the end, their insecurities.) The idea challenged the prevailing observe of women and child dolls; maybe these youngsters didn’t need playthings that completely centered round motherhood, or video games that mimicked the labor of their very own dad and mom. Barbie allowed them to ascertain not only a future for his or her kids however for their very own selves, grown and succesful and—importantly—stunning to behold. A doll with breasts? It was revolutionary.
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The thought offered, to a level by no means since replicated. From 1945 to 1974, Ruth labored as president of the well-known toy firm, and Barbie—named after Ruth’s daughter, Barbara—grew into one of the vital symbols of the twentieth century. An everlasting lighting rod for each ladies’s devotion and their feminist critique, Barbie has since offered greater than a billion plastic collectible figurines, even with encroaching competitors from Bratz and Polly Pockets and My Scene and dozens of others wanting to capitalize on the paradoxical aspirations and fears of American youth. Nobody may impede the pressure of these arched ft or that not possible waistline. In such a market, girlhood is a very salient construction, ubiquitous however malleable—and all too typically fed to the whims of capital-driven affect.
It’s on this murky actuality that Barbie the movie immerses itself, willingly, imperfectly, and with Ruth as an avatar. Perlman’s Ruth first seems halfway by means of the film, ensconced within the butter-yellow glow of a Fifties-style kitchen set deep inside the fictional Mattel Headquarters. It isn’t instantly clear whether or not she’s being held there in opposition to her will, if she is a figment of Barbie’s creativeness, or if Mattel itself has in some way mastered cryopreservation and reawakened her once-breathing physique. The specifics don’t actually matter (even when they’re enjoyable to tease out). Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie stumbles upon Ruth accidentally, as the previous pursues an escape from the Mattel fits gunning to field her again up. Ruth appears unsurprised to search out her personal creation confronting her, and the 2 sip (or slurp) tea as Barbie laments the complicated prospects of the true world. In such an area, who is she, actually? Is the feminism she thought she knew…completely faux?
Barbie doesn’t give Ruth a lot time to handle that query—with Robbie’s character on the run—however Perlman reappears on the finish of the movie, abruptly and mysteriously manifesting in Barbie Land. As she and Stereotypical Barbie stroll collectively right into a milky-white room with undefined borders (oddly paying homage to the Harry-Dumbledore King’s Cross Station scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Half 2), Ruth reveals herself as Barbie’s creator, and presents her with the Pinocchio proposition: both stay in her Dreamhouse ceaselessly, or develop into an actual lady in the true world.
At this level within the movie, Barbie has undergone a dramatic awakening. She will now not function within the headspace of “daily is one of the best day ever,” as a result of she has witnessed the artificiality of such an concept, and the best way through which it’s used as a device of subjugation. She yearns for the facility of selection, as a result of it permits her to inhabit greater than only one id.
However Ruth makes the selection clear, in no unsure phrases: “People have just one ending. Concepts stay ceaselessly.” If Barbie is to develop into human, she is going to exhibit the hallmarks of humanity: She’s going to age. She’s going to die. She’s going to navigate the total vary of human expertise, as Ruth illustrates for her in a sequence of found-footage vignettes, depicting ladies and their moms in wondrous portraits of Americana. There may be pleasure to be present in these sepia tones. However there may be additionally darkness, a actuality human Barbie will now not be capable to ignore. For hers was at all times ignorance, not real bliss; Barbie Land was by no means a real Eden, as Ryan Gosling’s Ken proves in his makes an attempt to subvert the alternate dimension’s establishment. Now that Barbie’s conscious of those contradictions, she should confront them. A weeping, gracious Robbie accepts Ruth’s provide with a whisper: “Sure.”
Right here, Ruth operates as an enchanting information to dying, a keys-keeper on the door to the subsequent chapter. She herself is deeply flawed: Because the film teases, Ruth resigned from Mattel in 1974 and was charged with tax fraud and false reporting in 1978, leading to a $57,000 advantageous and a pair of,500 hours of group service. She died in 2002 after issues from a surgical procedure for colon most cancers. And, after all, she invented one of the controversial icons of femininity in all of American historical past.
It’s a testomony to director Greta Gerwig’s creativity that Barbie’s “irrepressible ideas of dying” at first of the movie are greater than only a ridiculous utterance from the lips of a plastic allegory. They’re foreshadowing for a guess Barbie in the end makes, that the lack of an id is typically vital, and that it’s solely terrifying if it’s the one one in our possession. Dying is just the top if no different story exists. Ruth’s presence within the movie, then, is sort of Biblical, washed clear of her sins however all of the extra highly effective for her consciousness of them. And by together with Ruth’s IRL, still-living daughter Barbara as a separate cameo within the film, Barbie acknowledges each the fact of dying and the endurance of inventive legacy. Ruth (and, within the context of the movie, Barbie herself) passes on. Her story—and the questions it presents—are what we’re left to wrestle with.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a workers tradition author at ELLE, the place she primarily covers movie, tv and books. She was beforehand an affiliate editor at ELLE.