As Avani Desai wrote in her recent ITSPmagazine article And Then, Suddenly, Women Stopped Coding. What Happened in 1984?, “Finally, a tech-savvy Barbie.” Mattel launched its 126th career doll called Computer Engineer Barbie in 2010 after receiving a lot of feedback for and interest in this career.
And yet, a book with the same title was published that featured Computer Engineer Barbie who doesn’t know how to code. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Um, what?
And it gets better. She also infects her sister’s computer with a virus by casually inserting a pink, heart-shaped flash drive, and in response to that the two young women get into a pillow fight. Because that’s how a computer engineer solves problems.
In many ways, Barbie dolls have evolved since such incarnations as “Dreamtime Barbie with her Cuddly Bear” or “Shoe Obsession Barbie” who wears a necklace of stilettos, so it’s perhaps even more shocking when they suddenly take a step back to 1950. Mattel pulled the book I Can Be a Computer Engineer from the shelves, discontinued it and issued an apology, but what strikes me is that with all the checks and balances that a product goes through before hitting the market, no one spoke up and said, “Whoa, hold up. This is ridiculous! We can’t publish this!”
It’s not the first time, either. When Teen Talk Barbie was launched in 1992, she came with four phrases that she could speak when you pressed a button. One of those phrases was “Math class is tough!” (which is only slightly more ridiculous than her other phrases “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “I love shopping.”). Once again, Mattel apologized, removed the math phrase from its computer chip and announced that it would support girls in school from now on. It took mass criticism of this doll for them to make that promise?
And despite the legitimate career options, many of the career dolls wear short skirts, an ungodly amount of pink, full makeup, have enormous breasts, and a waist so tiny that it brings to mind foot binding of Imperial China. In 1965, Slumber Party Barbie came with a scale that was permanently set to 110 lbs. and a book called “How to Lose Weight” with just one piece of advice: don’t eat! (Exclamation mark theirs.)
Young girls are bombarded with opposing messages from the Barbie doll collection (not to mention life, of course) at an early age:
“You can be a computer engineer!” – though you’ll need a boy to help you!
“You can be a doctor!” – but just make sure you look sexy in those short skirts!
“You can do anything you want to!” – as long as you don’t eat and avoid difficult subjects like math!
The tech and security industries are going through a revolution in which the young, white, straight male is no longer the unofficial mascot when it comes to the face of the workforce. The issues being addressed are: How do we keep women in STEM positions for more than a few years? How do we fill the talent pipeline with more females? How do we encourage more minorities to earn STEM degrees? And how do we get schoolgirls interested in tech careers?
These questions are all valuable, but I think we have to go back even further. How many parents do you know that decorated the baby nursery pink for their girl and blue for their boy? How many female children receive LEGO, Transformers or dinosaurs for Christmas?
Check out the top three featured toys for boys versus girls at Toys R Us:
Studies have shown that typically “girls don’t show strong preferences for stereotypically female toys” – until they’re about five years old. Which means that the pink lace onesie and the dolls in baby carriages and the flowered wallpaper in the nursery all likely contribute to gender stereotyping. Many people will say that their little girls show a preference for princesses and makeup sets without any input from the parents, but I’d argue that there was input right from the start – in the form of unconscious bias.
As per UCSF Office of Diversity and Outreach: “Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.”
This list of the ten most controversial Barbie dolls include Sports Illustrated Barbie (in a bathing suit and heels), Video Girl Barbie (a “video girl” is a scantily-clad woman who dances in rap music videos), Black Canary Barbie (in fishnets, black leather and heavy eye makeup), and Growing Up Skipper (whose breasts grow when you rotate her arm).
And by the way, it’s interesting to note that Barbie was based on a German comic strip character that was marketed to men as a racy gag gift.
So does Barbie imitate life or does life imitate Barbie? That’s a bit of a trick question, since life came before Barbie, so it’s fairly safe to suggest that Barbie is simply modeled on life. The problem is, of course, that it’s not modeled on ALL life, only a small, biased, homogenous portion of it. But what does that tell all the girls who play with this doll? They are certainly not all white, blond, skinny, rich kids. As Kim Elsesser, a UCLA lecturer on gender and psychology, says, “Barbie creates norms for what's beautiful. But people started realizing that's not how 99% of the world looks.”
Last year Mattel put out diverse Barbies who come in three new body shapes and seven different skin tones (not to mention 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles).
Although I’m skeptical about the reason behind that change – it would seem that Mattel’s decision was based more on fledgling revenue (see image below) than actual social change – I will concede that it’s a step in the right direction.
Like it or not, the dolls that children play with are a kind of role model for them; it shows them, consciously or unconsciously, what the standard of beauty is and, with the career Barbie dolls, what they can aspire to be.
So when a girl gets a Computer Engineer Barbie who can’t code and engages in pillow fights as a solution to crashing someone’s computer, that sends a very clear message to her.
In June of 2016, Mattel finally got wise and launched Game Developer Barbie – who was created with input from three women who know what they’re talking about: Molly Proffitt, CEO of Ker-Chunk Games, LLC., Julie Ann Crommett, entertainment industry educator in chief at Google, and Kimberly Bryant, founder and executive director at Black Girls Code.
Barbie may be modeled on life, but Mattel has realized that it needs to ensure that it models the doll on relevant life, inclusive life, diverse life, not just the life of one tiny segment of the population.
About Selena Templeton
Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.