Georgia Tech student rewrites controversial Barbie book
ATLANTA — Barbie is again in the news after a doctoral student at Georgia Tech announced she had “remixed” a controversial Barbie book called “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer.”
The original book, which was published by Random House and was available through Amazon until it was pulled, drew heat for a passage in which Barbie admits that she actually is not a computer engineer, contrary to the title.
One reviewer on Amazon explained: Barbie “admits, ‘I’m only creating the design idea, I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.’ Literally six sentences into the story, and already Barbie CANNOT do it. She immediately admits she doesn’t know how to actually do computer engineering.”
The book’s writer, Susan Marenco, has since blamed Barbie’s corporate parent, Mattel, telling Kids Tech News this week: “(Mattel) can’t get out of that groove of ‘she’s nice, she doesn’t show anger, she doesn’t show frustration.’” She told ABC News, “Maybe I should have pushed back, and usually I do, but I didn’t this time.”
Mattel apologized in a Facebook post published Wednesday afternoon: “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.”
Casey Fiesler, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech and a Georgia native, had another solution: She completely re-edited the book.
As Fiesler explained in a Tuesday post on her website, the book’s problems were less semantic than patriarchal, the assumption that one’s role is explicitly gendered. “The problem is the assumption that (Barbie, as a girl) is a designer, not a coder, and the coders are boys,” she said.
Now, for example, Barbie tells her sister, “Really good games are made by a team of people. I’m doing some of the coding now, but Steven and Brian are helping, too. There are lots of pieces to making a game, like art and music and storyline. Brian drew that puppy. You’re a good artist, Skipper. Maybe you could be a graphic designer when you grow up.”
Fiesler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she first heard about the book on Tuesday, after it began circulating online. She realized that one of the good things that could come out of the scrutiny would be someone inevitably writing a new book or meme in response.
“And I thought, well, I guess I could,” she said.
So she sat down Tuesday night and, with help from Photoshop and with her roommate Miranda Parker as a sounding board, produced her remix in a few hours before posting it on social media.
It went viral: Fiesler said her website had about 800 all-time visits before the project, and has nearly 50,000 now. She said she has received a request to translate it into French.
The reaction surprised and delighted her. “If I’d known it was going to blow up like this, I would have proofread it a little more,” Fiesler said, adding that the response has been almost wholly positive.
In addition to her Ph.D. work on the intersection in digital spaces of copyright law and technology, Fiesler said she has a law degree from Vanderbilt. She also is a writer.
“If Mattel would like to pay me to write a new version, I would be happy to,” she said.