Spoilers ahead for the”Barbie” movie!
Last week, when I went to see “Barbie” (dressed up in pink, of course), I was surprised to see a less-publicized name pop up in the beginning credits — that of Rhea Perlman, the actress well-known for starring in “Cheers” and “Matilda” (co-starring and directed by real-life husband Danny DeVito). But in “Barbie,” Perlman takes on a whole new persona, that of mother and guide to our favorite pink-loving doll.
Where it has become commonplace for non-Jewish actors like Bradley Cooper, Daisy Edgar Jones and Felicity Jones to be cast in Jewish biopic roles, Rhea Perlman feels like refreshing, authentic representation as Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie and co-founder of the toy behemoth, Mattel. In fact, despite her scarce screentime, she is arguably the main star of the film, a Jewish guiding voice for Margot Robbie’s Barbie. (Handler is not Perlman’s first Jewish role, nor her first Ruth. Earlier this year, she portrayed the bubbe in “You People” and starred as Grandma Ruth in last year’s “13: The Musical”).
For those who haven’t seen it, “Barbie” tells the story of the Barbies, plastic dolls who live in Barbieland (oddly close to Malibu beach) with the Kens, blonde himbos whose jobs include “beach.” When stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) begins to think about death and gets flat feet, she sets out on an adventure for the Real World, with Ken (Ryan Gosling) in tow, to track down the girl playing with her (spoiler alert: it is not a girl but a woman, Gloria, played by America Ferrera).
Like a Jewish coming-of-age, Barbie’s role within the film is that of bat mitzvah girl, becoming a woman and realizing the pressure within her own gender. As Barbie discovers what life is like in the Real World, she ultimately must decide whether she wants to go back to her life in Barbieland or remain there, as a grown woman living within what she now knows is a patriarchal society. It is as though Pandora’s box has been opened and she can never return to the ignorant bliss she was living in.
Enter: Ruth, a ghost living in the Mattel building (and perhaps the only Jew found there; when one of the Mattel executives is asked what qualifies him to lead Mattel, he mentions that “some of my best friends are Jewish,” perhaps alluding to Ruth as his main interaction with diversity). As Barbie attempts to escape the all-male executives, she stumbles upon her own creator without realizing it in a 1950s style kitchen where she is sewing. It is in this moment that the past seems to meet the future, as Barbie sees how far women have come but also where they have been limited. Ruth, who is a mother (unlike Barbie), gives her a drink, her first sip of tea, and provides her with kindness and peace, just as a mother would. By giving her water, Ruth enables Barbie to see herself as more than just a doll (in a small way, it’s almost a mikveh for the doll, who has never been able to bathe with real water). She even tells her how to escape, providing Barbie yet again more opportunities, just as Ruth had done for our ideas of women when she first created the doll in 1959. When she guides Barbie where to go, she literally and metaphorically gives her direction, one where she can make her own rules of play.
Ruth Handler, who was Jewish and named Barbie after her daughter, Barbara, is embodied with unabashed Jewishness through Perlman, exuding warmth and comfort for the doll. The two are very similar; Perlman is of Russian and Polish descent and Handler was of Polish ancestry. Additionally, the two are both mothers; Perlman’s daughter Lucy DeVito recently starred in the Hanukkah film “Menorah in the Middle.”
When Ruth appears again, she provides Barbie with even more wisdom (and she makes the audience sob, like I did). As Barbie’s “mother,” Ruth provides her encouragement and praise when Barbieland is restored. “You saved Barbieland from the patriarchy,” she tells Barbie, before pulling her aside to deliver the heart of the film while Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” plays. By now, Barbie has embarked on a traditional hero’s journey, yet she feels she’s missing something, unsure of where to go from there, what her “ending” will be. And Ruth isn’t sure either, but she accepts Barbie and sees her as capable and strong — and she is delighted by the fact that her own creation could surprise her. “Ideas live forever. Humans, not so much,” she tells her, finally answering Barbie’s questions about death, before letting her go to be the woman she deserves.
Without Ruth’s spirit, Barbie doesn’t become who she is. Perlman plays her as smart and capable (in reality, Handler was charged with fraud and tax evasion, which “Barbie” makes some subtle nods to but declares “that’s for a different movie”). If there’s one thing that can be taken away from the film, perhaps it’s the fact that Barbie was richly influenced by a loud and proud feminist Jewish woman who just wanted her daughter to be happy and inspired, a welcome change from the overbearing Jewish mother archetype popular in media (yet she’ll always check in to see if you’ve eaten yet).
“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come,” Ruth tells Barbie in the film. In that one line, Perlman provides Ruth Handler with a legacy that far surpasses her role as Barbie’s creator. Rather, she is a guiding light and mother for the possibilities of all women.