Hell, Yes, Barbie Can Be a Computer Engineer!

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Poor Susan Marenco. In 2010, Ms. Marenco, now a technical editor in San Francisco, got an assignment to write for the ‘I Can Be’_’ series of Barbie books published by Mattel and Random House. Although there seems to be some question as to when the book was published (Mattel says in 2010, while Amazon lists it as being published in 2013), the real controversy is the flagrant sexist nature of the story. Ms. Marenco has suddenly found herself at the heart of a feminist firestorm for a book which, I’ve no doubt, she thought was buried deep in her past.

Don’t wait for the movie

Computer engineer Barbie

The book is ‘Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer’, and it tells the story of how poor, yet remarkably statuesque, Barbie is designing a computer game to teach kids about the technological breakthroughs and possibilities in robotics. Barbie’s learning web design? And her Computer Science teacher is also a female? You probably would be hard pressed, given this scenario, to see anything but positives all around. You would be wrong.

Skipper, Barbie’s vacuous younger sister, is impressed by Barbie’s design for the game. She asks to play the game, but Barbie explains that she’s only supplying the design ideas. Code needs to be written, and Barbie can’t do THAT. Only the boys, Steve and Brian, are code writers. Then, when Barbie tries to send her designs to her geeky boyfriends, something goes wrong and her laptop crashes. Oh, silly Barbie! No worries, though, because Steve and Brian will fix that problem, too, and much faster than she could. No, really, they tell her that.

PR nightmare

I don’t want to spoil this for you, in case you end up reading this masterpiece someday. It won’t be easy to find a copy, however, since Mattel and Random House are pulling the book from availability. You see, blogger and humorist Pamela Ribon found the book recently, and called it out for the inherently sexist tome that it is. Our friends at Gizmodo, who know a thing or two about the talents of female coders and developers, picked up on Ribon’s critique and suddenly the story went viral.

A spokesperson for Mattel has stated that the Barbie book series has changed since the original publication (although, as I said, there’s some disagreement as to when that was), and that ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’ does not reflect Mattel’s current forward thinking approach. Ms. Marenco, for her part, remembers that Mattel asked for a book in which Barbie was a designer, and doesn’t know when the job turned into computer engineering. One is curious to know if the editors at Mattel and/or Random House know the difference, but that’s probably immaterial. Additionally, Ms. Marenco says that she is a feminist, and deeply regrets stereotypes finding their way into the book. There is no reason to question this, and I don’t.

Lessons learned

The valuable lesson in this otherwise minor tale of regrettable publishing judgment is how quickly, once the story found life, people rushed in to acknowledge female developers and their unqualified skills. There is even a terrific site, Feminist Hacker Barbie, dedicated to rewriting the book. In fact, someone has already done that. PHD student, Casey Fiesler, has completely remixed the book featuring a very savvy and bright Barbie the Dev Genius. Front-end and back-end developers of both sexes have rallied to deliver the message that, hell yes; Barbie can be a computer engineer!

There should never have been any doubt that women are every bit the equal to men in web development circles, and there’s certainly no place for the kind of sexism demonstrated by the Barbie book. Regrettably, some Neanderthals who aren’t inside the digital business world might not have been aware of this. I hope they are now.

Photo credit: jencu / Foter / CC BY

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