Barbie maker Mattel's book "I Can Be a Computer Engineer" is the perfect example of the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. While the $4 book aimed at three to seven-year-olds sounds like a cool new book that breaks away from the stereotypes that Barbie has perpetuated for so long, it's really just the book's cover that is cool about it. The rest many won't find appropriate for their children.
"I Can Be a Computer Engineer," which has been quietly amassing scathing one-star Amazon reviews since it became available in 2013, has been pulled off from Amazon's virtual shelves as technology press has caught wind of what reviewers call a "misogynistic" book.
The story features Barbie as a fashionable computer engineer who likes pink laptops and heart-shaped USB flashdrives. It starts off fairly well, with Barbie working on a new computer game that teaches girls to code using cute puppies. But as one Amazon reviewer points one, only six sentences into the story and the reader finds out that Barbie isn't a very good computer engineer after all. In fact, she's not very good with computers at all.
She tells her sister Skipper, that she's not actually coding the game herself. She's going to need the help of her friends Steven and Brian for that. And to top it all off, her computer gets ravaged by a virus and she infects her sister's computer with the same virus by inserting her heart-shaped USB flash drive that she "luckily" wears so she always remember to back up her files. Even those who aren't computer engineers know Barbie wasn't supposed to do that.
So did her sister get mad after Barbie deleted her homework and all her music files? Yes, they had a pillow fight, to tell little girls that women have pillow fights when one of them accidentally deletes all the other's computer files.
Barbie then skips off to school and meets up with Steven and Brian who, of course, save the day by retrieving Barbie and Skipper's files and creating the code for Barbie's game. In the end, Barbie declares: "I guess I can be a computer engineer!"
Mattel just threw fuel into the fire with the existing diversity issues in Silicon Valley, were roughly 80 to 85 percent of technical jobs in most technology companies, including big players such as Google, Facebook and Apple, are owned by males.
Susan Marenco, the book's author, has spoken out since her controversial book hit the headlines, saying she has been afraid to open her email for fear of the deluge of angry mails. Marenco, who has worked as a usability specialist in Microsoft Development Center Copenhagen for 10 years, tells Kids Tech News that she is a feminist. She says she has "seen the sexism in the computer industry" because she herself has been part of it.
"As a writer, when I write, I think about this and I try to replace the professional white males with Asian females," Marenco says. "I try and I'm conscious of this because it's part of my political upbringing. You have to have this on the forefront of your mind or you slip back into that mindset of the traditional Barbie."
So why, then, did Marenco write about a computer engineer Barbie who doesn't know how to refrain from infecting computers with a virus? The author acknowledges that she wrote the entire book herself and some 40 to 50 other Barbie books, but she says Mattel still maintains strong control over what the authors write in their Barbie books.
"They're directing their wrath at the wrong target," she says. "Mattel is the target."
"They can't get out of that groove of 'she's nice, she doesn't show anger, she doesn't show frustration. They need a wake-up call," Marenco adds. "When I write something, I had many editor's comments like 'she has to be more polite.'"
Aside from pulling out the sexist book from Amazon, Mattel also apologized and promised to produce better books in the future. The apology on its Facebook page says:
"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."