Spoiler alert for Barbie ahead. Greta Gerwig’s live-action Barbie movie brings Barbie (and Ken) to life for the first time, with Margot Robbie (and Ryan Gosling) at the head. But she’s not the only elusive figure that takes center stage. The acclaimed film also features Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel and the actual inventor of the Barbie doll, in a role that ends up changing the course of Barbie’s life for good — but could confuse viewers who aren’t as knowledgeable about the history of the toy empire.
Handler, portrayed by Rhea Perlman, first appears as a mysterious woman that Barbie stumbles into at Mattel headquarters while running away from the executives trying to put her back in a box, led by Will Ferrell as the nameless Mattel CEO. She sits in a 1950s-style kitchen (the decade she came up with the doll), notices Barbie, and offers her some tea, never inquiring about who she is or how she found her. Instead, she guides Barbie through her crisis and gives a tip on how to escape the Mattel suits chasing after her.
Before the film’s pivotal finale, Handler reappears in Barbieland and reveals herself to be the woman that invented Barbie. This is confirmed by Ferrell, who quips that her ghost keeps an office on the 17th floor. After virtually getting worshipped as a deity by all of the Barbies and Kens, she takes Barbie aside and enters a white-clouded dimension, not unlike the one between life and death where Harry Potter met Dumbledore. There, Handler talks Barbie through her eventual decision to become human, saying she doesn’t need her permission to evolve beyond the idea that Handler created. “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come,” she imparted.
Shortly after, Barbie is back in the real world for good, and it’s revealed that she took the name of Handler’s real-life daughter Barbara, whom the doll was originally named after. Barbara, who is now 82, does not appear in the movie, as some viewers thought, but she reportedly approves of the film, praising Robbie and Gosling’s performances after seeing the trailer, according to TMZ.
While speaking to the citizens of Barbieland, Handler noted that she had “a double mastectomy and tax evasion issues,” which are both true — at least in part. The real Handler underwent a single mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer in the ’70s. Later in the decade, she was indicted on charges of fraud and false reporting along with three Mattel employees. Handler was ultimately fined $57,000 and had to complete 2,500 community service hours as punishment. In the midst of her legal and personal issues, Handler and her family were forced out of Mattel.