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a woman kissing the cheek of another woman. the woman being kissed holds a barbie doll.
Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler, left, gets a kiss from Kristi Cooke, an actress dressed as a Barbie doll, during the 35th birthday celebration for the doll at FAO Schwarz in New York City on March 9, 1994. (AP Photo/Robert Clark)

You wouldn’t guess it from Margot Robbie’s wide-eyed, perky Barbie character in Greta Gerwig’s latest feature film, but Barbie turns 64 this year. The Mattel doll debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, and was the creation of Denver-born-and-raised Ruth Mosko.

Mosko was the youngest of 10 children, born to a blacksmith and housewife in 1916. From a young age she was raised by her sister, Sarah, who ran a local drugstore. According to Colorado Country Life, it’s at Sarah’s drugstore that Mosko got a taste for running a business. 

She was 16 when she met her future husband, Izzy Elliot Handler, at a dance in Denver. The two would go on to co-found Mattel, first making furniture, then shifting to toys. 

The idea for Barbie came from watching her young daughter, Barbara, repeatedly choose paper dolls over baby dolls, endowing her toys with educational opportunities and careers rather than feeding them milk and rocking them to sleep. On a trip to Europe, Ruth saw a German Lilli doll modeled like full-grown women and her idea took shape. 

The Lilli doll was not the wholesome, dreaming Barbie that we know today — she was based on a gold-digging seductress from a Hamburg-based tabloid. But Ruth was more interested in her form than her function. Ruth and Mattel’s designers spent the next three years creating the 11½-inch-tall doll with a moveable head, arms, and legs, and, most importantly, an interchangeable wardrobe.

But both Barbie’s figure and success have stirred ambivalence over the years. The doll has been criticized for promoting consumerism, unrealistic body ideals and having a generally vapid existence. Growing up, Gerwig’s mother “wasn’t so sure” about Barbies, the director said in an interview with USA Today. But throughout the process of researching the movie, the director became fascinated with the doll’s creator — and her intentions.

Kate McKinnon in a scene from “Barbie.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)


According to Westword, Ruth’s philosophy was that little girls could be whatever they wanted to be. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman had choices,” Ruth wrote in her 1994 autobiography “Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story.” Despite the (mostly fair) criticisms about the dolls, Ruth was incredibly progressive for her time. As a business owner and entrepreneur, she helped start a conversation around ambitious women that is still relevant today. 

The feature film’s official release date is Friday, though some local theaters started showings a day early. And while local businesses might not get the same business bump that last week’s luminary brought into Denver, they’re still cashing in on Mattel’s mega-marketing push around the movie’s release. Combined with the doll’s hot pink history here in Colorado, it doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say that right now we’re all living in a Barbie world.

CORRECTION: This file was updated July 21, 2023, at 9:40 a.m. to correct a mischaracterization of the German Lilli doll. The doll was based on a comic character who was a gold-digging seductress.

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...