Feminsm is an incredibly important topic that invariably provokes discussion and debate. It’s a dangerous and difficult territory for a humble internet blogger. Feminism encompasses critically serious issues such as gender equality, the pay gap, sexual assault and rape. Appearing trivial but in fact no less important is Barbie.
It’s irrefutable that the Barbie brand is iconic. The dolls were and remain a staple plaything of children the world over. As part of a series of books to accompany the other merchandise, Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer was published in 2010. Any potential controversy surrounding the title languished in the shadows until mid-November this year, when notable American author (as well as screenwriter, blogger and actress) Pamela Ribon took to her popular blog, pamie.com, to vent her outrage at various points of contention in the book.
Patronising, agonising, infuriating sexism
In a piece entitled ‘Barbie fucks it up again,’ she highlighted how Barbie is portrayed as an inept computer engineer. Barbie is designing a game on her laptop. When asked by a character if they can play it, Barbie responds that she’s ‘only creating the design ideas’. Whilst the sentence is a little dubious given that Barbie’s stated role is a computer engineer, the eyebrows of eagle-eyed feminists should be firmly level at this point. It’s what follows that enraged a blogger and raised the subsequent ire of the internet. Barbie then says, laughing, “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game” (sic). The book is littered with similar instances of patronising, agonising and generally infuriating less-than-subtly-veiled sexism.
Pamela’s original blog post rapidly went viral, trending on Twitter, with YouTube videos building on her points, and with response editorials in a number of major newspapers including the Guardian and the Independent. The book itself, I concede, is woefully insignificant comparatively. What does it matter that a toy central to the childhoods of millions of impressionable young people is patently defined by sexist concepts (in addition to a whole host of separate issues related to body proportion), when the book is emblematic of far more significant issues.
In spite of Mattel pulling both the toy and the book from the market (which in turn led to extortionate price hikes on Amazon), and issuing an apologetic statement via the Barbie brand Facebook page, it speaks to widespread and pervasive sexism. Steven and Brian are arguably representative of the male dominated world of technology. In Google’s diversity statement 2014, they revealed their workforce was overwhelmingly white and male (to the tune of 70% men and 61% white). If you include Twitter’s tech employees, they are 90% male. Around half of technology companies have no women on their board at all (according to a GMI Ratings report).
Corporate sexism extends far beyond the technology industry. Every available metric points to disproportion. Be it women in boardrooms, gender pay, tenure at company, required employment certifications, the conclusion is unchanging. In the event my argument was poorly communicated or if it was misunderstood, here it is in simplified form: of course Barbie is just a toy. Of course she is not responsible for rape culture or any one of a collection of issues that concern feminism. But this book, this pathetic, weak, half-arsed attempt at giving Barbie some credibility amongst feminists does matter. It matters than the author couldn’t or didn’t take the time to think about the message sent by the text. It matters that in a book intended to inspire children with open minds, it completely misrepresents the skills of a computer engineer. And finally, it matters that you can equate the book to real word issues that affect women massively. Sadly, the book does nothing to displace the decades of body-image related issues and gender stereotypes that Mattel have consistently churned out. Worse still is that the book just continues a meandering, repetitive, wholly predictable chain of fairly basic sexism.
We’re approaching the end of 2014 and Mattel have missed the opportunity this year to redefine what Barbie is. Christmas stockings are not to going to be filled with delightful, positive gender-neutral Mattel Toys. There was a window to make the change, there was considerable financial cause for it and there was public pressure. Yet they didn’t deliver. What does that say about the company?