The first thing that came to mind in preparing this blog was the internet uproar from a few months ago regarding the 2010 Barbie book, I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The controversy arose when a journalist for Gizmodo, Pamela Ribon, published an article dissecting the book, entitled “Barbie F*cks It Up Again,” on November 18, 2014.
First of all, I definitely recommend reading the article, as it is a hilarious take on a horrifically troubling book for young, predominantly female, readers. To give a brief summary, I Can Be…A Computer Engineer starts out promising. Barbie’s story begins while she works on her laptop, designing a game intended to teach children how computers work. Barbie in a typically male-dominated STEM career, which seems like it will lead to a super-cool, ‘Woo! Feminism!’ ‘We can do it!’ type book for young readers, but it fails completely on every following page. After explaining her plan to her sister, Skipper, Barbie laughs off her compliments and requests to play the game, explaining that she’ll “need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Suddenly, catastrophe strikes! Barbie’s computer crashes, and she subsequently crashes Skipper’s by putting her virus infested flash drive into her laptop. How ever will Barbie fix the laptops? Enlisting the help of Steven and Brian, of course, as Barbie is completely helpless. The story concludes with everyone praising Barbie for her amazing skills as a computer engineer, even though she was unable to do anything without the help of the males, illustrating the common view that there is no need for females in STEM profession.
On November 19, 2014, the Barbie Facebook page released a statement on the matter, writing:
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 girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.
This statement peaked my curiosity on the developments made to Barbie books since 2010 – you know, ages ago, when misogyny was a thing…
I went to the Random House Kids website, which publish all Barbie Books through several different subsidiary publishing labels. While I was not able to read all of the books published within the past several years, I was able to read a brief summary of them, and through my brief undertaking, I was extremely disappointed. Barbie within the literary world is both very similar and extremely different than the Barbie created in 1959.
While the articles we read in class depicted Barbie as a grown adult modeled after the “Bild Lilli,” a “sort of three-dimensional pinup,” the Barbie portrayed in books from 2004 to the present, show a teen Barbie in high school, who, disconcertingly, owns her own Dreamhouse with her younger sister Skipper, and the occasional friend, or a teen princess Barbie (Lord 7-8). The two main series of books in production in 2014 and 2015 are Barbie in Princess Power and Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. The Princess Power series appears the most promising, as it depicts Barbie as a modern day princess with powers that allow her to “save the day,” but Life in the Dreamhouse highly values domesticity, with titles like “Cupcake Challenge!” “Barbie Loves Parties!” and “Dream Closet”. However, there is one book in the series that focuses on Barbie’s independence – in “Licensed to Drive” Barbie receives her drivers’ license and gains mobility and the responsibility of driving Skipper and her friends around the town.
Other books published within the past two years include: Hair-tastic!, Pretty Ponies, On the Runway, Sleepover Fun!, Dream Closet, and Pop Star Dreams. The I Can Be… series that sparked the 2014 controversy is continued to be published, but the “Computer Engineer” edition has been removed. Other I Can Be… professions include: gymnast, dance star, movie star, artist, pastry chef, cheerleader, and ballerina. There are some more education-focused professions, such as “baby doctor,” “pet vet,” and teacher, however most of the focus seems to be on “women’s jobs,” including those in the arts and even teacher. To me, the most impressive of all the I Can Be… works is the I Can Be…President, in which Barbie runs for class president, with the help of her female friend. It seems the most empowering of all the books, without a male savior to help Barbie out when things become difficult.
I found it interesting that in the second phase of Barbie, Pearson and Mullens note the building up of Ken as a character in his own right, with the “macho Ken” role beginning in 1963, Barbie began to retreat into the domestic (238). In the new Barbie books, Ken is never present as a main character, and, from what I found, usually is not present at all. In most books, Barbie actually seems to be pretty into “girl power,” always hanging out with her sister and her friends. This is what makes the turn toward “female roles” so baffling to me. There is no strong male lead to take on the high-powered roles, so they are just in limbo, in a world with a whole lot of dancers and performers, but no scientists, lawyers, or mathematicians.
Maybe I am looking too deeply into this. Maybe it is actually a feminist move to say, “You know what? I don’t want to be a scientist, I want to hang out with my pony, and that’s completely okay!” But I can’t help to think of all of the interesting, “non-girly” aspirations that many young girls have that are not being represented in this market.
Or, conversely, perhaps the depictions of Barbie in these books actually align with Pearson and Mullins’ framework of Barbie’s development and regression throughout time as an indicator of the social mores of our society at the time. As Lord explains, “Barbie [is] a toy designed by women for women to teach women what – for better or worse – is expected of them by society,” and, although disappointing, maybe our society is stagnant in a misogynistic ideology, developing, but only insofar as moving from domestic women’s roles to “women’s jobs” within the broader workforce.
Barbie. “The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book…” Facebook. 19 Nov. 2014. [12 Mar. 2015 <https://www.facebook.com/BarbieNAD/posts/362944293876701>]
Ribon, Pamela. “Barbie F*cks It Up Again.” Gizmodo. Ed. Annalee Newitz. N.p., 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.