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Barbie book implies girls can't be coders; Mattel apologizes

Mattel says a Barbie book that suggests girls can't handle computer code doesn't reflect its brand vision. That won't stop the uproar surrounding the title, which is still available to buy.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
5 min read

Barbie codes
Don't worry, Barbie, these guys will code your game for you. Susan Marenco/Random House

Can girls be coders? A picture book titled "Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer," published in 2010, has set off a current firestorm of negative Amazon reviews because of its clueless handling of the subject of women and girls in technology. According to the book, aimed at girls aged 3 through 7, computer engineering is too hard for Barbie. Mattel, the company behind Barbie, is distancing itself from it.

The book starts off promisingly enough, so long as you have a high tolerance for pink. It features Barbie sitting with her laptop, working on a game starring a robot puppy. The concept of the game is to show kids how computers work. You go, Barbie! Be a game designer and a coder! Awesome! But wait. It turns out Barbie is actually incapable of doing anything truly technical. "I'm only creating the design ideas," she says. "I'll need Steven's and Brian's help to turn it into a real game!"

From there, the book spirals downward. Barbie's computer starts blinking, which she pegs as the result of a virus. On a positive note, she is good about backing up her data onto a heart-shaped flash drive she wears as a necklace. However, that flash drive turns out to be the source of the virus, which she promptly infects her sister's computer with.

Barbie with computers
Computers are hard. Susan Marenco/Random House

At this point, we've descended into a strange Lynchian world where Barbie attends a computer class with a female teacher who wears a lab coat and explains the importance of good security software as if this were an after-school special. The teacher's advice for fixing the borked computers weirdly involves pulling out the hard drives and plugging them into another computer. Here's where Steve and Brian come in, as they help helpless Barbie recover her files and restore her and her sister's computers. The book also implies that they code Barbie's game for her, which nets her extra credit in class.

It seems like some good intentions went awry here. On one hand, Barbie absolutely should be a computer engineer. There's even an I Can Be a Computer Engineer Barbie doll featuring a glasses-wearing Barbie with her own pink laptop and a smartphone. The book also features a woman as the computer-science teacher. It's just that it completely misses the point about how Barbie can become a computer engineer. It would have been fine if she didn't know how to code, so long as she spent the book learning the skill and not just letting a couple of guys do it for her. What we end up with is a hot mess of gender stereotypes perpetuated for the unfortunate girls who read the book.

Criticism of the book, which was originally published in 2010, recently surfaced after author and screenwriter Pamela Ribon posted an article on her personal blog about stumbling across the book at a friend's house. The post involves a sarcastic, detailed take-down of the story. Ribon's site is occasionally unavailable, but the article is also available on Tumblr.

The book comes as part of a two-pack of stories, the other being "Barbie: I Can Be an Actress." Amazon reviewers, always quick to pounce, have gone to town in the reviews section, giving the book a barely-over-one-star rating. Reviewer Rachel Appel writes, "I work as a software engineer, which is a male dominated field. It is exactly these stereotypes and portrayals of girls like the one in this book that are the driving force behind the lack of girls wanting to enter these lucrative technology fields. This book is part of the problem. I hope Random House replaces this book with something more appropriate for children."

Amazon user T adds this: "This is possibly the most irresponsible children's book ever published. The title should really be a question: 'Can I be a computer engineer?' And the answer, according to this book, is 'No! Silly Barbie, take all that hard programming stuff to the boys! It will be faster if they just do it for you.' Aarrrrgghhhh."

The response to the book has reached well beyond Amazon, inspiring a site called Feminist Hacker Barbie that lets you rewrite the book by creating new text to go with the illustrations.

Author Susan Marenco has been caught up in the swirling controversy. She spoke with ABC News, saying her assignment for the project was to write about Barbie as a "designer." It's not necessarily uncommon in the industry to have game designers working on the look, flow and story of a game while programmers handle the coding side. Marenco told ABC she wishes she had made one of the programmers a female. Perhaps one of the biggest issues here was that the book's title set certain expectations which were not realized by the content.

CNET contacted Mattel for comment and received a statement from Lori Pantel, vice president of global brand marketing for Barbie: "The 'Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer' book was published in 2010. 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."

Here's hoping that upcoming Random House Barbie titles like "Pretty Ponies" and "Cupcake Challenge!" will live up to those aspirations. The Barbie doll, with all its history, will always have its supporters and detractors. In a perfectly geeky world, we would have more Mars Explorer Barbies and less computers-are-hard Barbies. Perhaps, for the healing to really begin, we need a new Barbie book showing her rocking her awesome coding skills to create a pony-simulator game. How about it, Mattel?

Neither Random House nor author Marenco immediately responded to a request for comment.

Update, 1:40 p.m. PT: To add details on origin of the current controversy coming from writer Pamela Ribon.

A Feminist Hacker Barbie user fixed this page of the book. Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

(Via Business Insider)