A few weeks ago the Internet erupted in outrage over blatant sexism in the 2010 book, Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer pointed out by blogger Pamela Ribon. While the book intends to inspire young girls, it portrays Barbie struts around with a bright pink laptop, wears a heart shaped USB drive as a necklace, and cannot even reboot her computer without some help. When she does design a game intended to show kids how computers work she says, “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
Real life engineers and feminists from around the world were quick to fire back at Barbie manufacturer, Mattel. Thousands tweeted about the book using the #NotBuyingIt and many even posted their own rewrites of the book.
At the height of the drama, my Facebook Newsfeed was filled with shared articles and passionate statuses standing up for the women that work in the male-dominated tech industry. As I read these statements, one question lingered in my head — Why do we keep expecting Barbie to be a feminist?
Mattel introduced Barbie, the Teen Age Fashion Model, in 1959. She sold for $3 and had outfits modeled after the latest runway trends. Her blonde ponytail and bright red lips revolutionized the doll industry as she mirrored the 1950’s glamour stars rather than the baby dolls previously dominating the market. Over the years Barbie expanded to every career: doctor, astronaut and even president. However, despite her still growing resume, Barbie continues to display inherent characteristics that keep her from being a true role model and inspiration for a 21st century woman. Barbie is still a 1959 teenage fashion model.
When college student Gloria Slayen created a life size version of Barbie, she found that “Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate. If Barbie was a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.” But for many readers, this is old news and even if Barbie were given correct proportions, her character would still have inherent flaws as shown by new study by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The study published earlier this year shows that “girls who played with Barbie indicated that they had fewer future career options than boys, whereas girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported a smaller difference between future possible careers for themselves as compared to boys” In the study, it did not matter if the Barbie was dressed as a scientist or a fashion designer, the girls still believed they had fewer choices for careers than boys. Despite what Barbie wears, or what careers she supposedly has, she represents something unattainable, unrealistic and inherently fantastical to young girls. Barbie will never represent a true inspirational character, yet we continue to ignore this and expect her to be more than she is.
Barbie has not been and never will be a feminist, so why do we need her to be?
In just the past few years there have been many new, revolutionary toys created for young girls meant to encourage not just the idea of being an engineer, but allow children to begin to be one. Toys such as Roominate, created by two female Stanford engineering grads, and Goldie Blox, help girls develop early interest in science and engineering by allowing them to build with their own hands. Rather than relying on a doll that only allows girls to play dress up, it is time for new solutions that empower girls in real tangible ways.
When I came to Wellesley I decided to take a computer science class. Like millions of girls around the world, I had previously felt intimidated by the tech world. I was lucky that during orientation week I stopped by the computer science table and met several of the amazing Wellesley students majoring and minoring in the department. I felt inspired by the women I met, and with the incentive of shadow grading, I registered for the class. Now every Thursday night you will find me sitting in the help room piecing together dozens of lines of code.
There is massive misconception in American society that what Barbie does will impact a whole generation. Barbie only has the power to influence young girls because we give her that power. I did not take computer science because Barbie did it first. I took that class because I met real women who code and who encouraged me to try something new. We will not have a female president because Barbie was the first, we will have a female president because of real women who came before her. The choice between giving your daughter an unrealistic doll dressed up as a computer engineer, or a toy that will actually help her become one, is in the hands of every consumer.
Last Friday, Mattel released a statement apologizing for the book and pulling the title from online sale. All future Barbie titles “will be written to inspire girls’ imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character”, Mattel promises. No matter what outfits Mattel designs or stories they write, at the end of the day Barbie will always be a character. It is time to inspire real girls with toys that inspire real confidence, skills and opportunities for the future.