Barbie Book Scandal: Writer Speaks Out

Susan Marenco is having a tough morning. She got 146 emails before she woke up, with headlines like “Shame on you”. Then Good Morning America phoned – and all before she’d had her morning coffee.

The hate mails were in response to Marenco’s Barbie book, entitled Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer.

This week, the Internet pounced on the book after The Daily Dot picked it up, although negative reader reviews have been flowing for months.

Most of them focus on the same thing: sexism in the book, which sends the wrong message to young girls interested in technology. In Mattel’s world, a computer engineer Barbie designs games, but relies on men for the coding part.

One excerpt reads:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I”ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

Barbie Book Scandal

When Barbie tries to email her designs to Steven, she finds that her screen starts blinking.

“Looks like you’ve got a virus, big sister,” says Skipper. “Luckily, I always wear a flash drive on a necklace so that I’ll always remember to back up my work,” replies Barbie.

Barbie Book Scandal

Mattel’s idea of computer engineer Barbie is actually a designer with inadequate security skills, who focuses on the accessory value of her tech equipment.

Barbie book outrage

Outraged readers have slammed the book.

“I work as a software engineer, which is a male dominated field. It is exactly these stereotypes and portrayals of girls like the one in this book that are the driving force behind the lack of girls wanting to enter these lucrative technology fields,” said one Amazon reviewer. “This book is part of the problem. I hope Random House replaces this book with something more appropriate for children.”

“Maybe instead of just designing, she could actually know how to program,” said another. “Maybe instead of having to wear a piece of jewelry to remember to back-up her files, she could just have the basic knowledge to always remember to back up her files.”

True to form, the Internet spawned a remix app here, where people can make their own wry comments by rewriting the book.

Compare the Barbie book to titles like Rosie Revere Engineer, or Linda Lukas’ Hello Ruby project, and it’s easy to see why people have a low opinion of the role modeling in the Barbie story.

Hello Ruby stars a small girl called Ruby, who learns to code with the help of her animal friends. No heart-shaped USB necklaces or reliance on guys to do the coding here. Just good, solid, positive role-affirming storytelling, with the odd algorithm or two. It began as a crowdfunded Kickstarter project, looking for $10,000 in funding. It raised over $380,000.

“I have seen the sexism”

Marenco, who wrote the Barbie book for Mattel, protests that she’s a feminist. She’s also a technology professional. She specialises in usability, and for a while worked at Microsoft’s usability labs in Copenhagen, where she lived for twenty years.

“I have seen the sexism in the computer industry and in a Silicon Valley totally dominated by men. It’s a boy’s game,” says the writer, who now lives in California.

She says that she tries to be politically aware in her work. “As a writer, when I write, I think about this and I try to replace the professional white males with Asian females. I try and I’m conscious of this, because it’s part of my political upbringing,” she says. “You have to have this on the forefront of your mind or you slip back into that mindset of the traditional Barbie.”

None of which explains why computer engineer Barbie can’t code.

Marenco confirmed to KTN that those parts of the book described above are indeed her original text. Nevertheless, Mattel exacts a lot of control over the final product, she argues, and guides writers heavily along the way, she argues.

“They can’t get out of that groove of ‘she’s nice, she doesn’t show anger, she doesn’t show frustration’,” says Marenco, who has written 40-50 Barbie books. “They need a wakeup call. When I write something, I had many editor’s comments like ‘she has to be more polite’.”

“Barbie is from another era, and they can’t bring her up to date,” she continues. “They can’t make her lose that terminal sweetness that she has.”

Marenco won’t be the first writer to forego some principles for a lucrative gig, by writing stories for a traditionally sexist brand that goes against her values. She protests that this whole thing took her by surprise, and muses that she’s unlikely to get another gig with the toy giant again.

“They’re directing their wrath at the wrong target. Mattell is the target,” she insists.

Mattel is doing backpedalling equally quickly, though:

“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,” the company said in a statement this morning.

“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.”

Those dates don’t bear scrutiny, though. Marenco has emails from editors asking her to write the book in 2011, and the publish date on Amazon reads last year. “I think they are referring to the magazine story in Italy which my book was based on,” she says.

None of this really lets Mattel off the hook. Barbie harvests an awful lot of revenue. The brand sold $1.2bn worldwide last year. That has made it acceptable for Mattel to keep peddling the same old stereotypes and hauling along the same old gender stereotypes year after year.  But now, people are migrating away from it.

Sales were down 6% worldwide compared to 2012, and the North American market is especially disdainful. Barbie sales there slumped 12% in 2013 compared to the previous year.

One of the biggest hinderances, according to Mattel, was “product innovation not being strong enough to drive growth.”

No kidding.


UPDATE Nov 20 2014: Mattel has now pulled the book from the Amazon store following widespread criticism of the title.