Binary in Pink



This is Computer Engineering Barbie.  I actually own one, a gift from my parents when I was working on my undergraduate degree in computer engineering.  I can remember sitting in the homeroom with my fellow female students in 2010, all of us eager to vote in the poll for Barbie’s newest career.  When Mattel announced that computer engineering had won the poll, it turned out that many adult voters like myself were the ones who had influenced the vote.  It was women in tech who voted in droves, recognizing the need to promote computing science as a completely viable and potential career path for any young girl.  The fact that computer engineering was even a poll option in the first place was a sign to women that Mattel recognized the need to diverse Barbie’s own goals and their own messages to young girls.

And to be honest, I love my Computer Engineering Barbie.  Sure, she’s sparkly and pink, but I get it, Mattel has a brand to sell.  Personally, I thought the binary was a nice touch, and most importantly, she got young girls asking what Barbie does as a computer engineer.  It was only natural that Random House decided to publish a companion book as part of their “I can be…” series this year.

And that’s where it all fell apart.

Writer Pamela Ribon does a great job of breaking down the entire story page-by-page and dissecting every sexist theme in this post (warning, some strong language).  You can imagine my dismay as I read through the story myself, feeling increasingly disheartened as Barbie, an aspiring computer engineer, designs great game ideas but requires men to turn them into reality, and needs her two male friends to fix her computer problems.  Barbie herself does not solve a single problem as a computer engineer, or make any contribution as a computer engineer whatsoever.  The author could have switched out “computer engineer” with almost any other subject of study and the story still would have made sense.

When I finished reading, all I could think was “Who the hell thought this was a good idea?”  I felt betrayed, like Mattel and Randomhouse had collaborated to pull an elaborate bait-and-switch on hopeful tech advocates everywhere.  And I’m far from the only outraged reader.  The comments on Amazon and Goodreads, from women and men alike, were just as appalled and disbelieving.  My favourites included reviews such as “waste of tree carcasses” and “this would have been sexist in the 50s”.  Many people, myself included, were also disappointed to find out the author, Susan Marenco, is a woman born and raised near Silicon Valley, the home of tech development.  How could this successful and popular children’s author have been so off the mark?

One of my male colleagues asked me why I cared so much about a child’s toy.  I stopped to think for a second.  I’m not critical about Disney princesses or pink ballgowns or sparkling tiaras.  But those are fantasy.  Computer Engineering Barbie was supposed to represent a new reality, and I guess that’s where my dismay comes from.  What was supposed to be a symbol of changing attitudes towards women in tech has actually set us back.  My research work is heavily related to diversity in engineering, and I find myself discovering more and more of these sorts of problems and issues every day.

Since I started drafting this post, the Internet has exploded with reaction, prompting a response on Barbie’s official Facebook page.

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

The apology is a good first step, but 2010 was pretty recently… hardly the Dark Ages.  And the paperback version was released in 2013… when it should have been pulled from the shelves instead.

So what did offended and outraged readers do?  The best thing possible- they rewrote the story.  You can even make your own!

I recently attended the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, and as usual, I was overwhelmed by the inspiring and influential speakers and professionals.  But in the three years that I have attended the conference, the most powerful moment is always when an undergraduate student tells me how excited they are to return to school and share their enthusiasm for engineering with other women.  Moments like that are why we can’t afford to be silent about messages like the ones being spread in this saddening book.

The good news is that it seems that our voices have finally been heard.  At last check, it appears that the book has now been discontinued.  Good luck Barbie, may your next career be more carefully thought out.


Related articles:

Meeting engineer Megan Smith, the new Chief Technology Officer for the US government, at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration.
Meeting engineer Megan Smith, the new Chief Technology Officer for the US government, at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration.

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