Tech Time Warp: Barbie’s complicated relationship with STEM
In this week’s tech time warp, we’re taking a look at Barbie—yes, the iconic doll turned blockbuster movie heroine. She has had a complicated relationship with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) would be an understatement.
Teen Talk Barbie, released in 1992, featured a computer chip programmed to say four of 270 phrases—including “Math class is tough!” Understandably, female STEM professionals did not think this was a good message for the doll’s target audience, so the members of Systers, a listserv founded by computer scientist Anita Borg in 1987 to connect women in computers, took their concerns public. Mattel ultimately discontinued dolls with the math phrase due to public outcry.
Sometimes we have to learn lessons the hard way
In 2010, Mattel introduced Computer Engineer Barbie. The doll’s 126th career was selected through an online poll. Computer engineer beat out surgeon, architect and environmentalist. Computer engineer was a close enough second to news anchor that Mattel produced both. With her pink laptop, Bluetooth earpiece, smartphone and binary code T-shirt, Computer Engineer Barbie seemed like a win for imaginative little girls and the women of STEM alike—except for one slight complication. Computer Engineer Barbie had an accompanying book.
In 2014, news reports surfaced that the Barbie book “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” featured a Barbie who says she is only “creating design ideas”, however she needs the help of a “Steven and Brian” to turn her ideas into a “real game.” More public outcry ensued. As a result, the book was removed from shelves—but not before three women in STEM (without the help of “Steven and Brian”) created the “Feminist Hacker Barbie” website, allowing anyone to rewrite Barbie’s story.
It seems that in 2016 Game Developer Barbie finally got it right: with blue jeans, hipster glasses, a headset, and a computer featuring actual code. She would be perfectly at home in Silicon Valley.
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Photo: Brenda Rocha – Blossom / Shutterstock