- Barbie and Ken are one of pop culture’s most famous couples.
- But the plastic dolls were named after real people, and they weren’t a couple – they were siblings.
- Ruth Handler’s children resented the dolls named after them and didn’t buy any for their own children.
Barbie and Ken are one of the best known couples in the world of pop culture.
As well as selling millions of dolls, the pair have spawned a 1997 Europop hit by Aqua, a “dream date” board game, and even appearances in “Toy Story 3.” They’ve just hit the big screen again in Greta Gerwig’s box-office smash “Barbie,” in which the two dolls – played by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling – put their relationship under a magnifying glass.
But the real-life Barbie and Ken were never a couple. The plastic dolls were actually named for a sister and brother – the children of Mattel cofounder and Barbie creator Ruth Handler.
Throughout the 1950s, Handler had wanted to make a fashion doll for girls who were too old for baby dolls and whose play was limited by the paper dolls popular at the time. But it wasn’t until she stumbled across a doll like the one she’d envisaged during a trip to Europe in 1956 that she finally managed to persuade Mattel to start producing an adult fashion doll.
Handler had wanted to name the doll after her daughter’s nickname, Babs. But that had already been taken – and so had Barbara. So Handler settled for Barbie “fairly early in the design process … in honor of our daughter, of course, whose innocent play with adult paper dolls had inspired the idea,” Handler wrote in her autobiography “Dream Doll,” and gave her the full name Barbara Millicent Roberts.
“If it hadn’t been for Barbie,” Ruth told The Los Angeles Times in 1989, “I would have never come up with the idea for the doll.”
Almost immediately after Barbie hit toy-store shelves in 1959, Mattel started receiving “hundreds of letters from little girls begging us to make a boyfriend for Barbie,” Handler wrote.
So a boyfriend for Barbie came out two years later in 1961. Just as she’d name Barbie for her daughter, Ken was named for Handler’s son. Ken sold for $3.50 and was half an inch taller than his girlfriend.
Per Mattel lore, the two plastic dolls met on the set of their first television commercial together in 1961. But after more than four decades together, the couple split up on Valentine’s Day 2004. In her 2018 book “You Don’t Own Me: The Court Battles That Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side,” Orly Lobel called the divorce an attempt to “revive Barbie.”
“With Barbie newly single, the company hoped to revitalize her image and match the edginess of her unexpected rival, Bratz,” Lobel continued. “However, fans saw the divorce as the forgone conclusion to a loveless, mismatched relationship.”
Barbara forbade her family from calling her Barbie
Handler’s children resented the dolls that were named for them.
By the time Barbie went on sale in 1959, Barbara, who was born in 1941, was way too old to play with the doll and didn’t enjoy the attention she suddenly got.
“There she was, just trying to be like everybody else, and suddenly she was the inspiration for the most popular toy in the world,” Handler wrote.
People asked her questions about the doll, wanted her autograph, and “treated her like a movie star,” Handler wrote. “She felt like it was really the doll they were making a fuss over, not the flesh-and-blood Barbara Handler.”
Barbara “went out of her way to hide her association with the doll” and even forbade her family from calling her Barbie, Handler wrote. “If people did find out, she’d tell them in no uncertain terms that she was not the Barbie doll.”
Ken “enjoyed stints as an object of adoration,” including when young girls lined up outside a relative’s house to meet him, but was also subjected to “a lot of teasing at school” because of the doll’s almost-smooth crotch, Handler wrote.
Handler’s children spoke candidly about their connections to the dolls in a rare 1989 interview with The Los Angeles Times, in which the real-life Ken said he was nothing like his plastic counterpart.
“Ken doll is Malibu,” he said. “He goes to the beach and surfs. He is all these perfect American things … I was a nerd – a real nerd. All the girls thought I was a jerk.”
Ken told the publication he thought of Barbie as a “bimbo” who “hangs out at the beach and doesn’t have a brain in her head.”
“I really don’t like her,” he added.
Barbara, meanwhile, said: “I’m tired of being Barbie doll.”
Handler also named dolls for her children’s partners and their children, including Allan, named for her son-in-law. Both Barbara and Ken told The Los Angeles Times they hadn’t bought any dolls from the Barbie range for their own children.