The Life and Times of Barbie

It's hard to believe that Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie, is now a senior citizen, although physically she is eternally frozen at a youthful 19.

Barbie was originally modelled on the German Bild Lilli doll, a risqué gag gift for men based upon a cartoon character in the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung. Lilli was redesigned and marketed in America as Barbie, a teenage fashion model with a lifestyle and a wardrobe to match. Each of Barbie’s ionic ‘outfits’ included accessories based on her ever-changing interests and careers.

Until Barbie came along, dolls were marketed as babies for girls to mother. As the 1960s changed American values, a sophisticated Barbie could represent anything a modern girl might want to become. The popular culture demanded much of the long-limbed perky blonde. She dabbled in careers as varied as an astronaut, surgeon, Olympic athlete, downhill skier, aerobics instructor, TV news reporter, vet, rock star, doctor, army officer, air force pilot, summit diplomat, rap musician, presidential candidate (party undefined), baseball player, scuba diver, lifeguard, fire-fighter, engineer, dentist, and computer engineer.

Her hectic over-achiever lifestyle may have contributed to her split from Ken, her long-time boyfriend whose main purpose was to chauffeur her to social events in a succession of pink Beetles, Corvette convertibles, camping trailers and Jeeps. Perhaps tired of her constant achievements, in 2004, Barbie dumped Ken and turned to an Australian boytoy, a surfer named Blaine.

By 2006, with Ken having updated his look, the romance was on again and the pair officially reunited on Valentine’s Day 2011. But for Barbie, still well preserved but in her fifth decade, the spark was seemingly gone. By 2018, Barbie and Ken had settled in as neighbours and friends in a prosaic domestic setting called Barbie: Dreamhouse Adventures.

As well as having man troubles and problems sticking to a career path, Barbie also had difficulties maintaining her unrealistically svelte figure. In 1963, the outfit "Barbie Baby-Sits" came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which advised: "Don't eat!" and another ensemble called "Slumber Party" in 1965 came with a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 lb.

Just as it often is for women in real life, Barbie’s appearance, activities and achievements came under constant scrutiny. Writing for the Journal of Popular Culture in 1977, Don Richard Cox noted that Barbie had a significant impact on social values by conveying characteristics of female independence.

Like a previous heroine named Nancy Drew, Barbie inspired young girls to envision themselves in exciting and adventurous lives, as well as in a variety of careers. In 2000, she ran for President of the USA. Meanwhile, to relax, she vacationed with Ken or the surfer dude in a series of hot pink camper vans and motor homes.

Over the years, like the little girls she grew up with, she has put on a bit of weight and there are now Grandma Barbies with accessories such as handknitted afghans. Ken too has greyed at the temples and taken to wearing a cardigan.

Johanna Zomers Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader