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Did Barbie's creator Ruth Handler really commit tax fraud? Yes!

In Greta Gerwig's 2023 Barbie movie, a fictionalized Ruth Handler jokes about getting in trouble with the IRS. That part isn't fiction...

Image credit: Wikimedia, Warner Bros

Heads up: this article contains some very slight spoilers for Barbie.

It's officially Year Zero A.B., After Barbie. The Greta Gerwig-directed, Margot Robbie-starring, Ryan Gosling-canonizing 2023 film is smashing box office records as you read this, making Mattel a mess of millions. None of it would have been possible without visionary Ruth Handler, Barbie's creator, so it only makes sense that a fictionalized version of Handler appears in the film - played by Cheers icon Rhea Perlman. A benevolent and wise character, Handler is there to help Barbie along, offer the audience some real life advice, and joke about breaking tax law.

Wait, what?

Yes, at one point in the film, Perlman's Handler makes a reference to being in trouble with the IRS. And though the version of her we see in the film is fictionalized, her run-in with the law is not. Here's the story.

In 1959, Ruth Handler and Mattel launched Barbie, forever changing the global toy landscape. The doll was an instant hit, spawning variants and accessories at breakneck speed. The '60s were a dream decade for Barbie and her creator, but things were about to get more difficult.

According to Business Insider, Handler writes in her autobiography, Dream Doll, that the early 70s saw her needing a masectomy. After taking time away from the company to recover, the businesswoman "was never able to grab hold of things and Mattel and regain control" after the procedure. With pressure mounting and stocks wavering, Handler decided to change her fortunes herself.

Between 1971 and 1973, Handler and Mattel VP Seymour Rosenberg reported false earnings to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, with the goal of bolstering Mattel's stock prices. Along with other Mattel officers, Handler created false documents reporting Mattel's earnings were as high as $20 million dollars more than the real ones (that's about $131m these days with inflation).

But the deception did not last for long. In 1975, Handler and husband Elliot were ousted as cochairs on Mattel's board. In 1978, she, Rosenberg, and three other Mattel higher-ups were indicted. Eventually, Handler would have to pay $57,000 in reparations and serve 2,500 hours of community service.

It's not the happiest of endings to the Mattel/Handler relationship, and you certainly won't hear about it, sans the joke, in the Barbie movie. And yet, it was not the end of Handler's life, or her legendary career in business. After going through the trials of a masectomy and beating breast cancer twice, Handler founded Nearly Me, a company that makes breast prostheses for survivors like her. Founded in 1976, Nearly Me is still in operation today.

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About the Author
Grant DeArmitt avatar

Grant DeArmitt

Contributing writer

Grant DeArmitt (he/him) likes horror, comics, and the unholy pairing of the two. He has written for Nightmare on Film Street and Newsarama, despite their better judgement. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner, Kelsey, and corgi, Legs.