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margot robbie in a barbie movie
margot robbie in a barbie movie
Warner Bros
Culture > Entertainment

Um, Were Those Tax Evasion Jokes About Barbie’s Inventor True?

Spoiler warning: Spoilers for Barbie follow. So you’ve seen the Barbie movie, left the theater laughing because of that amazing final line, and now are frantically googling all of the references to real life, from that Sugar Daddy Ken doll to whether Ruth Handler was a real person? Me too. If you’re in the latter camp, you probably raised your eyebrows at those jokes of the Barbie inventor being caught by the IRS for tax evasion. There’s no way that’s real… right?

Her role in the movie is obviously fictional, since she’s played by actress Rhea Perlman, but her IRL contributions to the doll and its history are very much based in reality. In fact, she’s the only person in the movie who’s playing a real person (though Mattel obviously has a real CEO, you can safely assume that Will Ferrell is not basing his character on the real thing). So yes, Handler was indeed the inventor of Barbie in 1959 and co-founder of Mattel, along with her husband, Elliot Handler. And she really did name Barbie after her daughter, Barbara, which is explained in the film (Ken was also named after her son, believe it or not). So what was the deal with Handler’s tax evasion? Let’s look into a little bit of Barbie history.

ryan gosling and margot robbie in barbie movie
Warner Bros

Though Mattel was founded in 1945 from the Handlers’ garage (so it is very likely Handler actually worked on the toys at her kitchen table, as shown in the movie when Stereotypical Barbie steps into a dream with her in a secret room somewhere in the Mattel building), Handler didn’t stay with the company until her death in 2002. In fact, she left pretty early on, resigning from her role as president in 1973 and later manufacturing prosthetic breasts with her new company, Ruthton Corporation.

If that seems like an odd career shift, Handler had breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy in 1970, and according to Yahoo! News, her inability to focus as a result of the diagnosis was the reason behind her exit at Mattel. The Los Angeles Times even reports that, though she and her husband had remained at the company as co-chairmen of the board, they were actually forced out of the company by new corporate managers who were diversifying Mattel away from just toys in 1975, leaving Handler with no ties to her creations.

That lack of focus also apparently led to her trouble with the IRS: In 1978, Handler was indicted on charges of fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission. She ultimately pleaded no contest, and as a result, had to pay a fine of $57,000 and complete 2,500 hours of community service. This happened after several investigations by the IRS of her fraudulent financial reports both before and after her resignation from Mattel.

While you might consider Handler’s tax evasion a stain on the Barbie legacy, it’s clear that Barbie writer-director Greta Gerwig does not. She even has Perlman as Handler show up at the end of the movie again, after Barbieland is saved from being turned into Kendom and all the Barbies and Kens are finding their happy endings. When Stereotypical Barbie says she feels like she doesn’t have an ending, Handler is there to tell her that she created Barbie to have no ending, allowing her legacy to live beyond her roots as an invention. This cements Barbie’s choice to become a human and live in the real world, using the name — you guessed it — Barbara Handler. It’s sweet how the whole thing came full circle… even though that tax evasion is kind of wild. The more you know!

Erica Kam is the Life Editor at Her Campus. She oversees the life, career, and news verticals on the site, including academics, experience, high school, money, work, and Her20s coverage. Over her six years at Her Campus, Erica has served in various editorial roles on the national team, including as the previous Culture Editor and as an editorial intern. She has also interned at Bustle Digital Group, where she covered entertainment news for Bustle and Elite Daily. She graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from Barnard College, where she was the senior editor of Columbia and Barnard’s Her Campus chapter and a deputy copy editor for The Columbia Spectator. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her dissecting K-pop music videos for easter eggs and rereading Jane Austen novels. She also loves exploring her home, the best city in the world — and if you think that's not NYC, she's willing to fight you on it.