When I was a teenager, I broke up with Barbie. Not in a I stopped playing with Barbies kind of way, more in a burning this scourge from the face of the Earth kind of way. I don’t know what the final impetus was – that I realized Barbie’s itty-bitty ankles would snap like tiny twigs were she a real woman?
Or the “Math class is tough” faux pas of the 90s? Maybe it was just too much Bikini Kill and Gloria Steinem. But, whatever it was, for a time, my rage towards the little plastic doll burned with the fire of a thousand suns. I could shove shocking Mattel-related facts into almost any conversation. For example, did you know that Mattel once made a cap gun that occasionally caught fire?
No? Well, anyone who knew me in the late ’90s sure did.
The rage slowly abated – I moved on, took more computer science classes and fewer women’s studies courses. That’s not to say I was not rage-filled. My rage turned to a far more deserving target: the treacherously misogynistic computer science department.
At the time the gender ratio was something like 6 to 300. I got the “opportunity” to be the group’s secretary in EVERY group project I was ever assigned. Sometimes I had the far more fancy title of “Group Librarian”. Whatever else this role encompassed, programming was not part of it. And so, since college, I’ve been far more interested in being hella angry at gender inequality in the STEM fields than in continuing my futile role as Mattel’s best known customer service gadfly.
But that ends, now, Mattel. Be afraid, be very afraid. It is ON, Barbie.
Why now, you ask? Because the Daily Dot brought THIS abomination to our attention:
Taken at face-value, you may be thinking, well – it’s a little pink, but what the hell, if it gets little girls interested in tech, that’s awesome.
Until you read it. And then, you too may be ready to have a Barbie bonfire.
Not because the book is wrong. But, because it’s right. To paraphrase a commenter on the Daily Dot post, Mattel has highlighted the issues of gender in IT far better than any parody could.
Where do you even start?
Well, we’re gonna start with Steven and Brian. Because, Barbie needs a bit of mansplainin’ to turn her “design” into a “real game.” As the Daily Dot points out, Steven and Brian may be the A1 Bestest Guys around, but the message here – girls are designers, not programmers. This is not a subtle message that we all need to “read” into. It’s pretty smack you in the face overt.
Steven and Brian are also required to rescue poor Barbie after she breaks two computers in one day with a mystery virus. How this relates to being a computer engineer, we do not know. In fact, upon re-reading this second line – what the hell does game development have with your computer engineering dream job? And how old is Barbie anyway? Is she in college? High school? Either way, she went to school and asked her teacher about how to rid herself of these pesky viruses, but then apparently decided that instead of discussing the problem with a respected authority on the subject, she would instead enlist the help of random d00dz. They all set about presumably crashing the library computer in the same way they crashed their own, but the resolution of the saga is left a bit of a mystery.
Instead, Skipper presents about Barbie’s awesome skillz, Barbie presents about Barbie’s awesome skillz and there the book ends. Oh and by the way – those promised educational code tie ins that they talk about in their advertising? Yeah – those don’t appear to exist. At least nowhere on the website we could find. And the book came out in June of 2013, so it’s not like they’re just waiting for the buzz to grow before they drop their awesome educational resources.
Let me be clear: Is it wrong that Barbie asked for help? No. Good lord, if I had to count the number of times I’ve asked for tech help we’d be here all day. Is it wrong that the people she asks just happen to be of manly persuasion? No, of course not. But these Barbie books are supposed to be aspirational. Read any of the other 5 in the “I can be” series and you’ll see the same basic plot. Career goal, pitfall, Barbie puts her awesome problem solving skills to work, and bam! she can be an under-water knitting champion. In fact, in the accompanying “I can be an actress” book, Barbie actually does the rescuing. Which is GREAT. So, what the hell kind of institutional sexism makes it so difficult to write the same aspirational book for computer engineer barbie?
Well, whatever it is, it’s the same crap that results in literally no girls in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming taking the 2013 AP computer science test. And, yes – I mean literally in the traditional sense. ZERO. None. Zilch.
And so, this is why my rage for Barbie has reignited. Because, Barbie, you have crossed a line. At least when you were all “math is hard,” you weren’t being sold as “Mathematician Barbie”. You are no longer simply a passive stereotype of unattainable female beauty. Instead, you are actively perpetuating the myth that programming is for boys.
But, Barbie isn’t real – so let’s ask the real question here. How many people had their hands on this book prior to its publication? The writers, the editors at Random House, Mattel’s brand enforcers, who knows how many people. And, it took Aja Romano at the Daily Dot to point out how incredibly egregiously sexist this aspirational text is.
Tell me again why it’s just that women are inherently disinterested in programming, not because there are institutional barriers to entry that are so pervasive that they almost invisible.
PS: If this depresses you, go give some time or money to Girls Who Code.
And, if you perhaps would like to placate your child but provide a more empowered Computer Engineer Barbie you can rewrite the book’s dialogue using this Feminist Hacker Barbie app. Feel free to post your favorite rewrites in the comments!