Mattel apologises for sexist Barbie ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’ book

20 Nov 2014

A page from Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer. Photo via Gizmodo

Although the Barbie ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’ book has been kicking around since 2010, only this week did the sexist nonsense within come to light.

Having stumbled upon a copy at the home of a friend, TV writer and author Pamela Ribbon penned a scathing critique of the book, pointing out that, despite the title, Barbie actually just comes up with “design ideas” (such as drawing puppies) and needs the help of two guys named Steven and Brian to do the real programming work.

The boys are also recruited to help Barbie repair her sister’s virus-infected computer, but not before the two siblings engage in a pillow fight because, in the Barbie universe, even budding computer engineers have to take time out for girly play time.

As part of Ribbon’s article (originally posted on her blog before being picked up by Gizmodo), her friend Helen Jane, a computer programmer and mum, gave this assessment: “Steven and Brian represent the tech industry assumption that only men make meaningful contributions. Men fix this, men drive this and men take control to finish this. Steven and Brian don’t value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted – every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing.”

The article sparked the fury of the internet, with many Twitter users taking to the social network to call Barbie manufacturer Mattel out on the piece. As reported by The Verge, the website Feminist Hacker Barbie has also been established to allow people to rewrite the book.

In response to the outcry, Mattel has taken to Barbie’s Facebook page to apologise for the book.

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books,” the company wrote.

“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 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.”

The book has also been pulled from Amazon, though as pointed out by Ribbon on Twitter, some copies are still on the shelves of brick-and-mortar book stores.

The Barbie doll has been the subject of criticism for years, with many arguing that her narrow frame offers young girls an unhealthy depiction of the female body. In 2009, researchers at Finland’s University Central Hospital found that if Barbie were life size she would lack the 17-22pc body fat required for a woman to menstruate.

Barbie’s ‘I Can Be’ range also included a collaboration with US space agency NASA that saw the launch of Mars Explorer Barbie, an astronaut version of the doll.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic