Earlier today, we wondered why the communications people over at Mattel hadn’t answered any questions about a book starring Barbie as a computer engineer. Barbie’s “engineering” job consisted of designing puppies while having male colleagues code the game and reboot her computer. This isn’t just sexist, but an inaccurate representation of what computer engineers do. Good news: Steven and Brian managed to get the virus off PR Barbie’s computer, and the book’s author has spoken up as well. UPDATE: Amazon also appears to have pulled the e-book version of this title.
Susan Marenco has written lots of stories about established characters, especially for Disney. According to her personal website, she wrote the dialogue for all of the Barbie “I Can Be” books, including the problematic title about Computer Engineer Barbie. She told ABC News that the issue may have been a miscommunication between her and her editors: she claims that she was told to write a book about Barbie as a “designer,” and Barbie in the book does design a cute puppy game.
Yet Marenco admitted that she sees how this book is problematic. It’s not that she’s never worked with engineers: she is a technical editor, and spent twenty years working for Microsoft as an editor and usability designer.
“If I was on deadline, it’s possible stuff slipped out or I quietly abided by Mattel without questioning it,” she told ABC. “Maybe I should have pushed back, and I usually I do, but I didn’t this time.” Mattel hasn’t confirmed this account with ABC yet. She points out that she could have easily made one of the programmer characters in the book female, but didn’t.
That’s a problem not just in feminism, but in life in general: the need to get an assignment done so you can go to sleep or out to dinner or to your third job, balanced with the need to fight back against putting potentially harmful messages in a book for little girls. She may not even have realized how harmful the messages were, given that her assignment wasn’t to write a book about an “engineer.”
For its part, Mattel is sorry, too. They sent a statement to ABC News attributed to Lori Pantel, vice president of Barbie’s global brand marketing, explaining that the book was written in 2010. That’s not much of an excuse.
Since that time, we have reworked our Barbie books. 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 apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls’ imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.
That’s not to say that a woman who enjoys games about pink puppies, or who needs help to remove a virus from her computer, isn’t empowered in other areas of her life. It’s just that to women who work with technology, this book read a little bit like a story about Barbie as a doctor who runs to a male colleague for help when she gets a paper cut.
Don’t sweat it, though, Mattel: Over at the site Feminist Hacker Barbie, a whole team of helpful volunteers are rewriting the book for you.