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This Barbie Is a Programmer: Could Barbie Inspire the Youth to Pursue Tech?

The marketing push, and grassroot discussions, for The Barbie Movie is moving beyond theaters to translate the movie's message of empowerment into real-world hopes and dreams — and maybe even careers.
Jul 30th, 2023 6:00am by
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It’s a movie with a lot to say — and everyone’s talking about it. But could it also be the movie that inspires the next generation of women in tech?

While Mattel has been criticized in the past for giving young girls a flawed role model with its play doll, The New York Times called Barbie’s new movie, directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach “an earnest attempt to make amends,” with Glamour magazine hailing it as “a feminist masterpiece.”

The movie opens with a glimpse of a world where Barbies play chess by the pool and “all problems of equal rights have been solved.” But more importantly, “movie-going audiences will see themselves represented in the film’s Barbies, who are thriving in professional roles ranging from physicist to President,” says a recent announcement from Xbox, which had its own Barbie-promotion to encourage female gamers to code games.

That announcement is part of a bigger push outside theaters to translate the movie’s message of empowerment into real-world hopes and dreams — and maybe even careers. It includes inspiration and encouragement from various organizations — and from women who already hold tech industry jobs. It’s the continuation of an ongoing effort over the years to provide better role models, sometimes helped (and sometimes hindered) by Mattel’s own attempts.

But underneath it all is one widely agreed upon truth. As Xbox’s announcement puts it, “Young girls thrive when they have someone to look up to…”

Barbie Meets Xbox

In a special video co-created with the Barbie Life YouTube channel, Xbox UK’s Charleyy Hodson interviewed women on the Xbox team (and the team behind the Xbox racing game Forza Horizon) about “careers in gaming, tips for the next generation of kids in STEM — and maybe some of their favorite Barbie memories too.”

Their video revisits a forgotten piece of history: that in 1997 Mattel had actually released a Barbie doll you could customize with your PC, inputting names for Barbie to say using special software that came on a CD. A Mattel ad even described this as “programming” your Barbie — and the doll shipped with its own tiny desktop computer.

The hope was that this could send a more positive message to young girls playing with Barbie — and Xbox’s video shares at least one success story. “She was just a huge inspiration to me,” remembered Erica, a Game Analytics lead at Turn 10 (the studio behind Forza Horizon games). “Because she was the only toy I had growing up that was a combination of a female character with technology.”

There’s a joke about “deprogramming” in the Barbie movie — and I could’ve sworn the Barbie who delivers it was sitting at the same computer and wearing the same gold jacket as this doll from 1997.

Xbox’s video also includes this encouraging advice from Neha Chintala, a gameplay and accessibility producer at Turn 10 Studios. “If gaming makes you happy, don’t let anyone in the world tell you that it’s not for you.”

Barbie also starred in a 2010 book called I Can Be a Computer Engineer — though its plot drew some criticism. When her sister Skipper asks if she can play the game, Barbie laughs at the thought before saying “I’m only creating the design ideas… I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.” (But she can’t even do that, because she lets her laptop get infected with a virus…) Told she needs to connect the hard drive to a computer with better antivirus protections, Barbie takes both computers to the school library, where her man-friend Steven says “It will go faster if Brian and I help.”

Author and Disney screenwriter Pamela Ribon captured the reaction of one female programmer friend. “Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted — every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing.”

Ribon also captured her own reaction. “I want this thing to start a meme of girls screaming, ‘I don’t need a Brian or a Steven!’”

Anything Is Possible

ABC News tracked down the book’s author, who turned out to be a woman in tech named Susan Marenco. Marenco had worked at Microsoft Development Center Copenhagen for 10 years as an editor and usability designer specializing in linguistic usability — and told ABC that her assignment had been to write a book where Barbie was a game designer (and not a programmer.)

Marenco “considers herself a feminist,” ABC reported, “and regrets that she may have let stereotypes slip into the book.” Marenco also regretted that the story hadn’t used a female character for at least one of Barbie’s programmers, and conceded “Maybe I should have pushed back, and I usually do, but I didn’t this time.”

The book’s publisher told ABC that the book was being discontinued. And Time magazine got this official response from Lori Pantel, Mattel’s vice president of global brand marketing. “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 girls’ imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

But maybe this is how change begins to happen. Because real-world software engineer Kathleen Tuite didn’t just call the book “sexist and backwards” — she did something about it.
Screenshot from Kathleen Tuite's Feminist Hacker Barbie web site

Tuite whipped up a website called Feminist Hacker Barbie where readers could re-write the book to their own liking.

And there was more to the story. Writing for Slate, Casey Fiesler pointed out the book had a corresponding doll that girls could play with. “Sure, it might have been a little silly that the actual Computer Engineer Barbie (first sold in 2010) has a pink laptop that perfectly matches her glasses and writes code in binary — but the fact that she existed was pretty awesome… There’s even a black version of the doll, also important since women of color are even more underrepresented in computing.”

Fiesler also noted that in June of 2016, Mattel released Game Developer Barbie, “who, despite my intense skepticism, is … kind of awesome.” (And Fiesler also applauded the back of the box for acknowledging that to build a game in the real world requires teamwork.)

Programming with Barbie

Efforts continue to turn Barbie into a positive role for aspiring programmers. The CS education site Tynker now includes a Barbie You Can Be Anything lesson. Its web page (with a pink background) promises to let kids “explore six of the coolest careers ever” — and “discover how programming concepts can be applied to each one!” (“Students learn to use basic programming concepts such as sequencing, animation, loops, and more while they explore each of the six careers through code games,” explains its note for teachers.) It’s apparently intended to offer a Barbie-themed lesson for this year’s annual “Hour of Code” challenge coming up in December during Computer and Science Education Week.

And in perhaps the ultimate triumph, this week Girls Who Code pointed out proudly that one of their students had coded up their own Barbie-themed quiz.

Maybe Mattel has learned a lesson from its past — and is trying even harder to steer young audiences toward a better future. In 2018, Barbie’s YouTube channel pointedly shared a video where Ken thanks Barbie for her tips on algorithm visualization.

Then in 2019, Mattel founded “the Barbie Dream Gap Project,” which they define as “a global mission dedicated to closing the gap by challenging gender stereotypes and helping undo the biases that hold girls back from reaching their full potential.” Every year it donates $250,000 to non-profit partners that “work directly with girls and enable them to reach their full potential.”

The idea of a “Dream Gap” inspired further action. In 2022 Mattel sent two Barbie dolls into outer space “to encourage girls to consider a career in aerospace, engineering and STEM.” NASA described it as “a Mattel STEM Education payload sponsored by the International Space Station National Lab to help eliminate the Dream Gap and enable girls past the age of five to continue believing they can be anything.”

Later the two Barbies joined the historic collections at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The same year Mattel launched a Space Discovery Barbie (along with a line of accessories that included her own rocket).

Looking back over it all, Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s executive VP and global head of dolls, marked the occasion with some thoughtful words about what efforts like this might mean for future generations. “It is important that we encourage girls to reach for the stars — literally — and pursue careers in aerospace and STEM.

“With help from the International Space Station National Lab team, we are reminding girls that not even gravity can hold them back.”

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