For over two generations, Barbie has told girls they can be anything they want to be. Over the years, the toy, manufactured by Mattel, has had several career incarnations as an astronaut, doctor and teacher – just about everything under the sun. The doll has even been a computer engineer, and that is where this latest controversy begins.
A paperback children’s book, Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, showcases the famous doll working in the tech world, a field still dominated by men. In the story, Barbie has some technical issues with her computer and has to enlist the help of two male colleagues to help fix her computer, some have criticized this as having sexist undertones.
In the story, Barbie laments that she only comes up with the designs for her projects and can’t troubleshoot the technical problems on her own. Her design cannot become a real game unless male counterparts Steven and Brian come to the rescue and fix the problem twice as fast as she can by herself. Some commenters on the book’s Amazon page have pointed out that this is a stereotype in the STEM community that deters girls from pursuing careers in the science and technology fields.
The book, published by Random House, has endured several harsh comments echoing concern over the iconic toy needing technical assistance from males, and the book is now listed as ‘Temporarily Unavailable.” It hearkens back to a similar controversy years ago where Barbie complained that “Math is hard,” triggering critics to point out the sexist gender stereotypes perpetuated in that single statement.
For those who eschew gender stereotyping, there is a solution to the sexism represented in the book. The website, Feminist Hacker Barbie, created by female hacker, Kathleen Tuite, allows people to digitally change the pages of the original book, and write the story in a way that allows Barbie to write the code for her design and turn it into a game on her own, without the help of the males she works with.
Lori Pantel, vice president of global marketing for the toy brand, released a statement to the media via email in which she explains that the book was written back in 2010, and was not in line with the vision of what the doll stands for today. In the email, Pantel noted that going forward all Barbie-themed books would encourage girls to explore their imaginations and foster empowerment. She also pointed out that this single incarnation of Barbie does not speak to the brand as a whole.
Getting girls involved in STEM-oriented study has been a theme gaining steam throughout the tech community. Earlier this year, Disney teamed up with code.org to create a game teaching young programmers how to code by building snowflakes and having characters based on the movie Frozen, skate.
The book’s author, Susan Marenco, who spent 10 years in the tech field working for Microsoft, has said that she is afraid to open email after the news of the book’s perceived sexist tone went viral. She does admit that she may have let some stereotypes about women and technology slip into the story, but she also says that the assignment required Barbie to be a designer.
While Barbie may have needed tech support from the men she worked with in this story, when viewed in the big picture of over 50 years, Barbie is still a feminist and was one of the first career women, whether she has computer problems or not. After all, this book was sold together with a book about the doll’s desire to become an actress.
By Jennifer Gulbrandsen