In January 2010 Mattel Inc decided Barbie – formally known as Barbara Millicent Roberts - needed another career. She’s had no shortage of job changes, but given her sporty cars and expensive fashion tastes it would appear Barbie is top of her game no matter what industry she deigns to dabble in.
This was unique; it was the first time in Barbie’s history she asked the world to select her new career. Mattel conducted an online voting campaign calling upon Twitter followers and Facebook fans to make the choice for her.
One option was ‘Computer Engineer’ which so inspired the likes of online communities such as Reddit that the poll – which may ordinarily receive a mundane number of visitors – saw staggering vote stacking. The Computer Engineer Barbie was a landslide winner.
Yet, it would seem the fuddy-duddies at Mattel couldn’t quite get their heads around Barbie, a girl, doing something so boy-like as being a computer engineer, despite ousting the competitors.
Mattel thus proceeded to ignore its own poll and pronounced Barbie’s 125th career as News Anchor Barbie. After some apparent reconsideration, Mattel honoured its original commitment and made Computer Engineer Barbie the 126th Barbie career and doll. This career was not bestowed the honour of “winner”, though, but “popular choice.” In which case why run the poll at all?
The doll was produced with fashionable glasses and binary-code patterned clothing. Her accessories included a Bluetooth earpiece, a pink laptop (running BarbieOS presumably, based on the image on-screen), a laptop bag and mobile phone. Apparently Barbie designers worked closely with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop this wardrobe.
Mattel stated Computer Engineer Barbie would inspire a new generation of girls to explore this important high-tech industry. The President of the Society of Women Engineers, Nora Lin, stated at the time “All the girls who imagine their future through Barbie will learn that engineers – like girls – are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination.”
It all sounded very good and promising and inspirational. If only Mattel’s book authors were told this.
At the time I had no idea Computer Engineer Barbie had an accompanying book to spruik her mighty tech accomplishments. Yet, a book was indeed released in 2010, though has only just made the rounds on the Internet giving it a new burst of fame.
“Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer” was scanned and placed online by blogger Pamela Ribon, otherwise known as Pamie. Pamie explains she visited her friend and was excited to find the Barbie book at her home. She gleefully read it only to find a tale of woe.
Just remember, Barbie is a computer engineer, at least Mattel’s vision of a female computer engineer.
The story begins with Barbie working hard at her laptop one morning. Her sister Skipper asks what she is doing. Barbie explains she is designing a game to show kids how computer works. So far so good. Barbie continues to explain that for some reason this game includes a robot puppy that does cute tricks by matching up coloured blocks.
Skipper things this is great and asks to play the game. Barbie laughs, oh, “I’m only creating the design ideas” she says, reminding Skipper and the readers she is a girl. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
That’s right; Barbie can’t code. She just makes design concepts.
Barbie next tries to email her design to Steve but her computer crashes. She reboots it, with her sister’s assistance, but nothing works. Yep, Barbie has a computer virus.
Fortunately her work is not lost! She backs up everything onto a flash drive that she wears as a heart pendant around her neck.
She inserts the disk into Skipper’s laptop and … oops, now it is infected too. Barbie realises too late that her USB stick is virus-infected.
Skipper is unimpressed; all her schoolwork and music is on her laptop and she has no backup. She’s also in the middle of writing a major assignment about a person she admires (you can guess where that is going.)
Barbie says she will fix it; Skipper says she had better and doffs her with a pillow because, I suppose, a pillow fight solves all.
Barbie goes to “computer class” and asks her lab-coat wearing professor, Ms Smith, how she can retrieve files from a computer with a virus.
Smith explains you can remove the hard disk and put it in another computer and provided you have good security software on that second computer you can recover data.
Barbie is inspired so she tells her friends, Steven and Brian, that she needs to fix two laptops before she can send the work she was supposed to email. They deduce Barbie is out of her depth and Steven states “It will go faster if Brian and I help” no doubt thinking “Egads, you’ve broken enough now, Barbie. Don’t touch another thing!”
Steven recovers Skipper’s assignment and music and then repairs Barbie’s laptop also.
Skipper is delighted the next morning when Barbie presents a working laptop to her. Skipper tells Barbie how cool she is for fixing her computer and saving her homework. Of course, Barbie takes the credit for this and keeps silent that she caused all the problems in the first instance.
Skipper goes to school and presents her assignment on someone she admires, which no doubt you guessed, is her big sister Barbie, the incredible computer engineer.
Meanwhile, Barbie is back at computer class (whatever that actually means) and shows everyone the game she designed. Ms. Smith is so impressed by these designs – despite no actual programming having taken place – that she gives Barbie extra credit.
Barbie’s terrific computer skills have saved the day for both sisters, the book declares, happily forgetting the tale is actually one of woe where an inept designer with no technical ability infects two laptops with a virus. In actuality Barbie’s skills were limited to being social enough to have friends who can restore the damage.
“I guess I can be a computer engineer!” says Barbie happily. It is unclear what leads her to that conclusion because in reality the story portrays Barbie as clueless except being able to design a concept. When she actually needs “real” technical work done she goes to the boys.
Ironically, the book was written by Susan Marenco whose web site proudly is labelled “Your Site Title” so perhaps the author drew from her own experiences.
The story became so popular that Pamie refiled it at Gizmodo to give her own blog a break from the traffic. Since then actual female computer engineers have made their own renditions of the story, tweeting under hashtag #feministhackerbarbie with such great results as Barbie commenting on Steven’s pink laptop, or hacking into the KKK.
My favourite rendition so far is Barbie the Debian Developer by Neil McGovern where Barbie is responsible for creating systemd. Now you know where to direct your anger.
Interestingly, the real book is no longer for sale at Amazon.Com and TechCrunch reports Mattel intervened and pulled it off the site.
Mattel has since published an apology on its official Barbie Facebook page apologising that the portrayal of Barbie in this specific story does not reflect Mattel’s vision for what Barbie stands for.
Mattel states “We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologise 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.”
Yet, my erstwhile colleagues inform me the book actually does reflect the brand, at least as it was in 2010. I am advised by one fellow journalist that his daughter has a library of Barbie books and they all essentially follow the same theme. Consequently, his take is the book may not reflect Mattel’s brand strategy going forward but it definitely was written in the same thematic style of Barbie books back in the long-gone era of simply four years ago. In other words, it is the brand Mattel is trying to shift. You may verify this by taking a stroll down the Barbie aisle of your local bookshop.
As another colleague quips, “If Mattel weren’t so shifty they could have shifted the brand ages ago instead of giving girls a shift sandwich.” Is the era of Mattel telling Brattels what they can and cannot do over? Time will tell.