Mattel has finally issued an iteration of Barbie as a woman in STEM that modern parents can get behind – Game Developer Barbie. This new Barbie rights the wrongs of her predecessor, Computer Engineer Barbie, who caused a huge stir in 2014 because Mattel made her rely on her guy friends for actual coding, and the story about her “computer programming” also showed her demonstrating incompetent behavior. I somehow missed the ridiculous book that shows her introducing a virus into Skipper’s computer, wearing her flash drive on a necklace (omg accessories!) and having the boys save the day by fixing the virus problem. And as usual, all her accessories – including the laptop – are pink.
Yes, Computer Engineer Barbie was eye-rollingly terrible, and has since been discontinued. However, as Slate’s Casey Fiesler, who has her doctorate and is a information science professor at the University of Colorado, writes about Game Dev Barbie, “Perhaps most striking, Barbie can actually code. With some help from my colleagues as well as the Twitter hive mind, we were able to just barely make out the code on Barbie’s laptop. The interface appears to be Alice, an educational programming environment, and the code it’s outputting is ActionScript (or maybe Haxe). Basically, she seems to be making a Bejeweled clone in Flash. And whatever you think about that choice, it’s a huge step up from Computer Engineer Barbie’s laptop showing nothing but ones and zeros.” Essentially, Mattel decided to actually do their homework and make this Barbie and her tools legit. Fiesler (unlike myself) has the educational background and career experience to point this out, and the fact that she approves of this Barbie iteration really gives credit to Mattel’s choices here. As a feminist critical theorist of pop culture, I appreciate the attention to real-life coding detail as well as Game Developer’s Barbie’s true-to-life outfit, the implications this has for consumers (both male and female), and the ongoing trend of inclusion that, in 2016, feels like a long time coming.
Game Developer Barbie’s little story on the back of her box highlights that creating a game is a team effort, and does not include coding alone, but storytelling, graphic design, and audio design. That message feels particularly important, since it shows kids that there are many opportunities and career paths within STEM fields. Also, she is wearing sneakers (not Barbie’s normal choice of footwear), jeans, a t-shirt – gray with a dark pink stripe, not the bubblegum pink normally associated with Barbies, and an army-green jacket. Her tech accessories are white and silver, and she sports both headphones and glasses. Now, I know Barbie has sported glasses in the past, but these are not cat-eye, and very similar to a pair you could find in Warby Parker! That was honestly the most surprising accessory to me. I think it is great that Barbie is wearing an outfit that any one of us could easily pull a variation of out of our closet. I also like that her laptop has a robot sticker on it!
The fact is that women are demanding representation in numbers louder than ever before and, finally, mass-market companies are listening. Just like our intrepid Legion of Leia founder, Jenna Busch, demanded that Rey be included in future Hasbro Star Wars Monopoly games (and other products, to be sure) through her creation of the hashtag #WheresRey, so too are female and male fans of all ages asking for Black Widow, yelling for a Wonder Woman film (or ANY superhero movie to feature a leading woman), cheering for an all-female Ghostbusters team, getting excited about Felicity Jones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and demanding that Special Agent Dana Scully get a nameplate and a desk of her own. Young girls have more female characters than ever to look up to, and it is because we are loudly telling companies and studios what we want. After the 2014 Barbie controversy, it appears that Mattel heard us. It unfortunately took a PR nightmare and yanking a sexist product from the selves, but if that is what it takes for positive feminist representation, so be it. Our cultural tide is slowly turning, and Barbie is now a small part of the solution rather than a signifier of the problem.