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Barbie is an Aryan Fraulein

Ruth Handler was a mature, intelligent businesswoman when she bought the rights to the  German "Lilli,' and transformed her into Barbie. 



I tried to straighten him out, but there is only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.


-David Sedaris



I don't know if Willa Paskin, Slate's TV critic and host of their Decoder Ring Podcast is Jewish, Christian, Muslim or a Jewish Buddhist, and I'm not sure it is even relevant, but it is niggling me, as the Brits would say. I was listening to her being interviewed  by Natalie Kitroeff on The Daily, New York Times podcast, about the history of the Barbie doll and its new blockbuster iteration. About two-thirds into the interview Paskin casually mentioned that Ruth Handler, co-owner of Mattel and developer of the Barbie franchise, was Jewish. The word "Jewish" fell gratuitously in the middle of the sentence like a prong on a fish. The prong never was extracted: there was no context, no backstory. Kitroeff let the moment pass without further questioning. She's the Central American, Mexican, and Caribbean NY Times Bureau Chief and relatively new as a host to the podcast. Maybe she's still learning, or just standing in for someone on vacation. The gratuitous labeling deserved a follow-up question, which never came. That's a shame because there is a significant connection between Barbie's origin story and Ruth Handler's origin story.


Handler was a child of Jewish-Polish immigrants, already the owner of Mattel, when she traveled with her husband to Switzerland, and discovered a beloved German sex-toy doll based on a comic-strip character, "Lilli," created by Reinhard Beuthien for the nationalist right-wing tabloid newspaper Bild in 1952. There were few if any Jews left in Germany to enjoy this buxom, blonde-haired Bavarian/Aryan masterpiece. But Handler was attracted to her three-dimensional realism, bought the rights, and transformed her into an oversexualized American ideal woman. Barbie's Aryan birthing, a smidgin beyond the Nazi era, was ignored, or forgotten.


The podcast interviewer's oversight--or disinterest-- in the story behind the story reminded me of a passage in Richard Ford's Sportswriter, the first in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The lonely and miserable protagonist parks his car at the train station during rush hour one evening and watches the crowd surging onto the platform. He comments on all the "Jewish lawyers" who commute to DC from New Jersey every day. Why not just "lawyers?" I wondered. Why "Jewish lawyers?" What is this? And is it the character talking, or Richard Ford talking? Why has Ford written this antisemitic trope into his character? Instantly, my stomach dropped, I lost my sympathy with poor old Frank, and then I lost my concentration. I'd had the same sensation of disgust and fear with Wharton's antisemitism, Hemingway's antisemitism, and Picasso's misogyny. For the record, I haven't stopped admiring all of them.


Ford is a still living writer so I wrote him a letter and sent it c/o his agent and his publisher.  I never got an answer, of course, but a few years later I saw him in a restaurant eating alone. I was having lunch with a sophisticated relief-worker friend who came from a similar background as Ford—WASP, Southern—and I told him about the letter I'd written. He suggested I introduce myself and mention my letter, and though I don't like to disturb well-known writers in public places, I got up from the comfortable banquette and walked over. As I managed to unfreeze my angry brain all I could say was, "I love your books," which is true. I walked away feeling defeated, hurt and cowardly. What had happened?  I have faced down antisemitism often in my writing life, and in person, too, but the encounter always sets my heart pounding.


My friend consoled me, we paid the bill, and left Ford to savor his solitary lunch.


A few years later Colson Whitehead took Ford on at a literary party. Whitehead had written a bad review of Ford's recent collection of short stories and Ford was so upset that he told Whitehead that he was just a kid and should "grow up." Ford then proceeded to spit at him. So, I thought, I was right about Ford; he's a racist and Colson Whitehead is a mensch. He made light of it, and even cracked a joke as Ford was seething. Ford was warned by friends to cool it, that he'd never live down what had happened that day—a white writer from Mississippi spitting at a Black literary star is a trope in itself. Indeed, the incident has become a literary cause célèbre. The time has passed to give even well-known literary racists, albeit brilliant writers, a pass.


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