Barbie’s professional resume certainly seems impressive – over 100 full-time careers since her creation in 1959, in addition to spending considerable amounts of time in her Dream House, cruising around in her Glam Convertible, and swimming under the sea as a mermaid. To celebrate her 125th career in 2010, Mattel offered Barbie fans a chance to vote on what career they wanted to see Barbie have next! The choices were “architect, computer engineer, environmentalist, news anchor or surgeon,” and computer engineer came out on top (Gaudin).
Here, Mattel was offered a unique opportunity to show Barbie in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career, a field that offers very few women role models. But, Computer Engineer Barbie wasn’t exactly a fan-favorite. And it wasn’t because she was too nerdy to sell (despite her pink glasses, the one telltale sign of an intellectual). In fact, it was just the opposite.
Computer Engineer (CE) Barbie was portrayed a designer who didn’t do much coding for her video game (a game which consisted of robot puppies who danced…), and ultimately needed the help (and masculinitiy) of Steven and Brian to fix a virus she inadvertently loaded onto her computer. Womp, womp.
Alongside the CE Barbie doll was a book, in which the above story occurs, called Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. It didn’t take long after the release of CE Barbie for the backlash to begin. And the blessed people of The Internet took it upon themselves to “fix” CE Barbie. Thus, The Greatest Barbie To Exist That Doesn’t Really Exist was born – Feminist Hacker Barbie.
NPR credits Kathleen Tuite, an independent consultant in the computer science field, with the creation of the Feminist Hacker Barbie meme. “She says a friend posted a call to action on Facebook seeking women programmers to help crowdsource a hack to make new text for the book,” NPR writes. In the Feminist Hacker Barbie cartoons, the text from the original book is replaced with jargon-filled quotes coming from Barbie, often in response to the ineptitude of her male counterparts.
Mattel has since discontinued the original book.
But how could Mattel have gotten it so wrong? Why didn’t someone proofread the book and think, maybe Barbie should just do the coding herself? Sure, working with Steve and Brian shows that it’s awesome to work in a team, but did they have to both be men? And did they have to clean up Barbie’s silly virus mess for her?
CE Barbie speaks to the fact that no matter how impressive her resume is, at the end of her day, her careers are second place to her outfits. Barbie is a doll. Her personality is defined by the clothes that she is wearing; otherwise, she lacks purpose. Her plastic body could be the plastic body of anyone if the clothes on it weren’t made of binary code print fabric.
An article from ComputerWorld says that “Mattel designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering…” (Gaudin). Yes!, I thought reading the article, talking to women who are experts in their field to create an authentic computer engineer! But the quote goes on to say that Mattel contacted these women “… to develop the wardrobe and accessories for Computer Engineer Barbie, the company noted.” So close!
This further proves the point that Barbie is defined by her things. She exists doing only what her outfits and accessories allow her to do. In the same way that featuring Native American Barbie in only traditoinal ceremonial outfits renders her as an acessory to her own culture and not a participant in it, so, too, are other Barbies confined to the restirctions of their outfiits.
The Pearson and Mulligan article about Barbie material culture provides more evidence to support this point. The article cites 1179 outfits, 43 playsets, 16 vehicles, and countless friends and family members accessory dolls from 1959 – 1976, and since 1976 Barbie’s accessory and outfit collection only continues to grow (Pearson and Mulligan 228). Pearson and Mulligan discuss how the release of domestic accesories for Barbie (pots, pans, brooms) equates to her role as a domestic. So, if her household accessories make her a good housekeeper, why does her Computer Engineer outfit not make her a goodcomputer engineer?
CE Barbie had a promising start. There was a chance to make her a great computer coder, a fabulous dresser, and a hard-working team member, but Mattel fell short. The sad end of the Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer book feels like a problematic ending of a problematic doll. Yeah, she wasn’t that good at coding, so, in the end, she just quit.
The focus of CE Barbie was her outfit, and her career was her accesory. This is not the message Mattel should be sending to the girls who play with her, but it’s the message that will Mattel will always send. Because a Barbie in plain jeans and a tshirt wouldn’t sell. And if it did, we wouldn’t be sure what to do with her, anyway.