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Mattel apologises for sexist developer Barbie book

"Doesn't reflect the brand's vision for what Barbie stands for"

Mattel has pledged to make Barbie a more empowering figure after images from its sexist Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book went viral.

The book saw Barbie explain to her younger sister Skipper that while she had an idea for a game, she needed "Steven and Brian's help to turn it into a real game."

"The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books," said Mattel.

"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 girl's imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character."

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Latest comments (35)

Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.6 years ago
A group of feminist hackers have taken the liberty for Mattel and enabled a user editable version of the book.

https://computer-engineer-barbie.herokuapp.com/

I've seen several adaptations that should have been the original material to start with. For shame, Mattel, for shame.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises6 years ago
I like how she's in the kitchen too, it's another subtle sexist touch to the book.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
When this started doing the rounds on Facebook, I genuinely thought it was a hoax, it was so ridiculous.
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Show all comments (35)
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 6 years ago
I originally thought the page had to be out of context - that maybe she thought she needed help at the start and then learned how to make it herself.

Nope.

It could have been worse, though. They could have made Steven Brian's driver.

After seeing the kitchen scene I had to double-check to make sure they hadn't done exactly that.

And as @Jim Webb said, if you haven't seen https://computer-engineer-barbie.herokuapp.com/ you are missing an enormous treat.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 23rd November 2014 5:26am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Why is nobody mentioning the half bitten off bananas? They are an obvious symbol for female empowerment over men. Plus Barbie learns that programming is writing your name over and over in binary on a computer screen. That has to count for something, right?
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
It seems perhaps somewhat inappropriate given the current climate to call this 'sexist'. Mattel don't use that phrasing so someone must have inserted it somewhere,

While one would expect the franchise to be more female orientated, a female with a certain skill set needing other people's help (who happen to be male) does not scream 'sexist stereotype" to me. It would also depend on how other subjects in the series of books were dealt with - if she could master traditional female roles, but only be a bit part in traditional male industries then that would be a worrying reinforcement of stereotypes for children.

I'm glad to hear though that the books have been re-written as Ms Roberts deserves to be as empowered as she can so that she can be an iconic figure for good reasons as well as her traditional bad press (my partner has issued a blanket no Barbie ban for our two year old daughter for example).
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 6 years ago
So a educational book encouraging team work, cooperation and creativity is sexist now.
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An 'educational' book reinforcing outdated and wrong ideas about the capabilities of women in software engineering is pretty sexist, yeah.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 24th November 2014 1:58pm

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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 6 years ago
I disagree, I think more girls that read the book will identify with the situation where they do not have the skills to do the entire project on their own and will need to work as part of a team to bring it to fruition than some superwoman that can do everything herself, personally I don't think stereotypes in general are a bad thing, they are much easier to identify with than a market research constructed "average person". The problems arise IMO when people cast negative opinions on certain aspects of the stereotype to that end, I find the people complaining about the book more offensive than the book itself as they are the ones casting judgement upon all women and their choices.
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games6 years ago
Could of avoided all of the hoopla by instead saying: "Sally's and Brian's help to turn it into a real game."
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 6 years ago
True, but surely somebodies sex doesn't matter and is independent of their ability, so to complain the one of the characters should be a different gender seem somewhat sexist myself.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
I'd agree, Craig, except they labelled her a 'computer engineer', when clearly they meant designer, thus rather unhelpfully evoking every negative stereotype about women in technology (i.e. that technical roles aren't for them).

I personally think it was written by someone who has no clue what a computer engineer is and does, so the crime is ignorance of the job, rather than a deliberate portrayal of women's role in technology as non-technical, but the end result is the same - not helpful!
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
Agreed that it is not a good thing to have a book called "I can be a Computer Engineer" when the content is completely different.

I still think that headlining with the word 'sexist' does give some interpretation to the facts, it is a bizarre concept to claim that pointing out the implications for Barbie's empowerment, and women's role in the games industry in general is sexist as it makes gender important. Obviously anyone that is going to be concerned with gender roles and stereotypes is going to specifically look at gender, roles and well, stereotypes.

Also we can see something that many industries, including our own, could take note of. Criticism that relates to gender roles and representation have been made, and those responsible have listened and acted accordingly. In this case Mattel have decided that the criticisms are just and the book does *not* match their vision of the character and franchise, and apologised for any offence caused.

It shows that you don't need a furore about the whole issue. And I think the important thing to note is not that they agreed with the criticism, but that they listened to criticism that came not necessarily from their core market - but took the criticism on the merits of its strengths, rather than its origin or its political stance.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 24th November 2014 6:11pm

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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
Craig, you "find people complaining about the book more offensive than the book"?

Oh dear.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief6 years ago
But more broadly, yay to Mattel for accepting the arguments and promising to change in the future.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd6 years ago
I find the people complaining about the book more offensive than the book itself as they are the ones casting judgement upon all women and their choices.
See, I don't think on further consideration that you would find this. You've just seen it trotted out in the comments under literally every news story about a piece of media being criticised for reinforcing stereotypes.

I think there may have been some level of ignorance (rather than outright malice) that led to this book - being able to make games single-handed without a very high level of technical knowledge is a relatively recent development, after all. That doesn't really excuse it though. I'm glad Mattel have taken steps to correct their error.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios6 years ago
I don't think ignorance of the industry is any excuse. The awful line in the screenshot above clearly acknowledges that there are both creative and technical roles involved, and categories Barbie firmly as non-technical. You don't need to have shipped a game to see that.

But well done to Mattel for owning their mistake and promising to be better. I'm not sure how Craig expects improvement to happen in any field if he thinks constructive criticism is offensive.
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 6 years ago
I'm all for constructive criticism, this however is not what I'd class as constructive criticism, this is the embodyment of peoples predjuces and for some reason they are currently targeting creative women.
I find the people complaining about the book more offensive than the book itself as they are the ones casting judgement upon all women and their choices.
See, I don't think on further consideration that you would find this. You've just seen it trotted out in the comments under literally every news story about a piece of media being criticised for reinforcing stereotypes.
No it is my belief that everybody is/should be equal and open to make own choices, any nobody has the right to cast judgement over others life choices, by critising Barbie's desire to be more creative you criticise all the little girls that identify with her, worse if you remove this type role model there will be nothing to encourage these girls(I'm saying girls but I know boys could read this too) to join with their friends and see what they can create together, if somebody is creative they won't identify as much with a technically minded person and vice versa. I do not see this as step forward, more a step back.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
That would be a valid argument if they'd produced a booklet showing Barbie as a designer. It's a valid career choice! But they didn't produce that.

Instead, what they produced was a book showing a women who was *supposed* to be technically minded as per the job description, but wasn't.

Besides, who in their right mind, male or female, *wouldn't* want to be a programmer? It's hella awesome! We get to tell designers and / or producers how dumb their suggestions are, ALL THE LIVE LONG DAY. It's amazing.

(I kid, other choices are valid. Inferior, but valid).
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
That doesn't make any sense as far as I can see.

This is a book called "I can be a Computer Engineer". No one is criticising Barbie's desire for anything. What people are criticising is that the main protagonist in the book does nothing to be a Computer Engineer but relies on others to do the technical work. So really the title does not fit the content.

Then we have that Barbie as a girl cannot do the technical stuff but can the creative and the technical experts happen to be men. This is not sexist per se without interpretation, but it does reinforce sexist stereotypes and gender roles. The point that many have made, and that Mattel agrees with, is that there is no reason that Barbie couldn't do the technical aspects as well. Provide a role model to little girls of an empowered woman that can do stuff on her own and indeed a role model to little creative-types of any gender both to follow their creative urge but also keep the control of their creations by getting their hands dirty in other areas.

How can you argue that in a book about Computer Engineers that it is a step backward if the heroine actual does computer engineering? How would it be a step forward to limit Barbie to a creative role? The book isn't called "I can be Artist". And why do you assign Barbie with desires to only be creative? By creating the game she would be both creative and technical, and in the original version it clearly and unambiguously states "I need help..." not "I don't want to make it on my own."

No one here is judging others choices. Barbie isn't real and hasn't decided this as a career path. The criticism is aimed at the portrayal of a woman in the gaming industry as unable to undertake the technical aspects even when that is contrary to the title.

It is very strange that you seem to think that people will identify more with those of limited ability and scope than larger, and nor have you explained why you think it is so important for a book called (yeah, sorry about the repetition of this point) "I can be a Computer Engineer" to be aimed at creative types who don't want to do any computer engineering.
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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios6 years ago
Good job Mattel! They're doing the right thing by recognising that they've done wrong by young girls.

Though I don't see how any creative would be offended by the backlash against the book's obvious pigeon-holing of women to strictly non-technical backgrounds. That's just such a strange thing to read into this.


Also be sure to look up the edited examples on the #FeministHackerBarbie hashtag, some gloriously sarcastic examples out there.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
I want to see the day, when Mattel pulls Ken from the stores, replacing him with a bookshelf, because focus tests have shown that this was what Barbie should find more interesting. That and the illegal immigrant Cuban doctor Barbie relies on, since her tuition leaves no money for insurance.

Until then, your Barbie hardcore consumerist fantasy will never be about what you have to do to become something. It will always start at pretending you already are what you want to be and go from there. There is no crack team of Mattel book writers going for fact-checked gritty realism.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop6 years ago
Yeah it's terrible isn't it John, like those people who'll label "traditional" forms of entertainment like blackface as racist. It's political correctness gone mad, etc.

Something being a tradition is not really an excuse. What society finds to be acceptable is not stuck in stone.
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
Maybe the problem is that some people label anything "traditional" as sexist.
This is something that causes a lot of friction between those in favour of traditional values and those that are often portrayed as undermining those values. Traditional roles are not sexist in and of themselves. For example a sitcom where the wife stays at home and looks after the children while the husband works is not sexist, unless it explicitly explains that these roles are taken due to gender, or that this is not a specific situation (how it just so happens to be in one individual example) but a normative situation (that women should stay at home to look after the children).

Often though people interpret such situations as sexist as they reinforce stereotypes. If people, particularly children, only every see the traditional gender roles portrayed in the media and educational material then they will begin to look not only as traditional as normal, but non-traditional as abnormal. Indeed as the traditional roles are always going to be the dominant average, non-traditional roles need to be over-represented to balance the cultural inertia of traditional and historical roles.

Particularly in media such as Barbie that is nearly exclusively aimed at young girls, special care and attention needs to be given to the fact that both traditional and non-traditional roles for women are represented. And by debating and listening to all sides of any disagreement it is easiest to do this. We don't all need to agree, and we don't even all need to be right (heaven forbid that we have to be 100% correct to make criticism), but we do need to listen, exchange ideas and try to do the best that we can.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 25th November 2014 9:27am

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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
@John

Yes, I do. While I am not as exposed to popular culture as I used to be before my kids, looking the series that I have been watching on DVD recently such as Breaking Bad, Numb3rs, Only Fools and Horses, etc. still the majority of people are hetrosexual, have long term monogamous relationships, raise children, have women as the main carers for children etc. In kids TV it is even more prevalent as gritty realism doesn't really have a place there. I don't see this as a bad thing, as this is what the majority of people do. I don't equate traditional with wrong or bad and neither would most people, I would suggest, that like a more prominent role for non-traditional roles in any media. The issue I think is to have positive role models for everyone, and to counteract our instinctive association of minority or unusual with abnormal and wrong.

Edit: And yes about Mattel deciding it is entirely up to them how they wish to portray their character and what kind of social responsibility if any they wish to shoulder (to protect traditional family values or equality or female empowerment or heck, white supremacy if that is really what they think). I have tried to previously emphasis the good thing is not so much that they made changes (though the title/content contradiction certainly needed changing) but that they listened to the criticism, considered it and acted as they thought best. That would be the example I would hope people would take from this episode, not that someone complains and the corporation quickly backtracks and engages damage control to protect their public image.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 25th November 2014 10:23am

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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios6 years ago
It seemed pretty sexist to me to be fair... ...But then again it's Barbie. Do we really expect it not to be.
Yes.
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Robert McLachlan Game Designer 6 years ago
Such irony. It would be like rain on your wedding day.
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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios6 years ago
Well the next time you complain that Russian companies and politicians are being homophobic when arguing for and promoting "traditional" values while trying to prevent "non traditional" values just remember the irony.
What irony?
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
There is an awful lot of interpretation in this summation.

Such as you equate gender equality with feminism. I am not a feminist, but I am sensitive to gender equality issues, both in general as point of fairness and justice and general human sympathy, and specifically as I have a little girl and I do not think kindly of those that wish to limit her potential or opportunities in order to protect "traditional" values. If you substitute gender equality for feminism, what you say suddenly looks very different
Not everyone in the world agrees with gender equality, not everyone thinks it sets a good example. Different people have different value systems and when you impose in this way your value system on others it's the height of hypocrisy when you complain when other societies through their political, business powers impose their values on their people. That's the irony.

It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with gender equality. You should always respect individual choice.
How reasonable does that sound?

The point of gender equality and of providing empowered female role models for children is that it allows freedom of choice. Take for example a woman that has a career that gets married. There are pressures in the modern world to quit her job and raise children, pressures to have children period, pressures to stick said children in day care every day so as to continue her career, to not have children so as not to risk her career, and probably even more. By providing empowered role models it makes it easier to choose what the individual wants to do.

By reinforcing traditional roles at every opportunity, this only makes it easier to choose those roles. It stigmatises non-traditional roles, and erects barriers that make individual choice more difficult to realise.

To compare one group of people criminalising homosexuality (limiting personal choice) with those that wish to enable everyone to to make their own choices regardless of traditional or cultural norms (by providing broad range of role models, and encouragement to follow what ever direction they wish to) shows either a willful refusal to look at facts or a complete misunderstanding of the issue.

In this discussion of have continually refused to actually answer any points made that you disagree with,picked on irrelevant points (Mad Men, and the year of Only Fools and Horses (season that I have been watching was made in 2000 fyi) hardly seem central to the discussion at hand) and have made strange claims that seem to be based more on your prejudices that facts("this is an example of mob rule" - even though no information in article points in any way to any kind of mob, abuse or threatening behaviour).

Listen to criticism of a product or an industry does not mean that you need to cave into vocal minorities. I am what could accurately described as a "sick little puppy". Postal 2 is one of favourite games and I have spent countless hours in Saints Row and GTA busy with baseball bats and scantily clad pixellated women. I in no way support every game in the industry being made to feminist values, but to grow as an industry, to attract new players, and to make everyone feel welcomed here we need to listen and consider all criticisms whether it is from feminists about gender representation or conservatives about violence or parents about the influence on children.

Closing our ears because we don't mobs to control us is the worst thing that we can do.

And with that I am finished with this thread as clearly nothing more of interest can be said that actually relates to the subject.
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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios6 years ago
Different people have different value systems and when you impose in this way your value system on others it's the height of hypocrisy when you complain when other societies through their political, business powers impose their values on their people. That's the irony.
So your defence is Cultural Relativism. I'll be sure to keep in mind that I might be offending some super-traditional orthodox Russians when I call out their government's systemic and tradition-based oppression of LGBT communities and literal mob-torture of openly gay people. Or maybe that kind of respect towards cultural differences WRT specific oppression is openly harmful.

For example. "We shouldn't criticise FGM because in certain countries that's their custom despite that custom being rooted in gender oppression of women waaah shut up feminists. #gamergate".

So yeah, I expect Mattel to create and market a non-sexist Barbie character. Might there be someone out there with more traditional views taking issue with that? Sure probably. So what?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Chris Reeves on 27th November 2014 2:43pm

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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios6 years ago
It's almost as if we were talking about open violence against homosexual people and a mutilation practice which kills hundreds if not thousands of girls in the developing world each year. Sure "protecting" women.

I'm placing you on ignore now.
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
Now, I know I said I was going to leave this one alone....but...

It really looked as if we were going to get some closure here and now it has gone off on a terrible tangent again. I think throughout this discussion there has been misunderstanding after misunderstanding.

Chris was talking about FGM - which I am guessing stands for female genital mutilation. Also known as female circumcision. This is not the place to go into it but is not a cosmetic surgery as male circumcision is (in most cases). Read up on it, if you want to have a truly depressing read.

In the hopes of bringing this to a close, lets first concentrate on what we agree on.

People should be allowed to make the lifestyle choices that they wish, free of undue pressure from other people's prejudice. Traditional or non-traditional or any else, the individual has a basic human right to choose their own path in life. If we can agree on that, the rest is pointless bickering over trivialities.

But if I can attempt to show you why it appears that some people are taking issue with what you are arguing, even if we do agree on the fundamentals.

First, you are using the comments on this article to criticise feminists, when really you are the only person that is bringing up that political agenda. Also you use an ad hominem logical fallacy to then ignore the "feminist" arguments. Concretely here, in context, we are talking about gender equality by means of giving girls examples of female role models that pursue both creative and technical careers. Not one over the other, and nothing such as "you can't show little girls role models of women doing traditional things".No one is arguing here that anything should excluded, or that any one following traditional paths should be criticised for doing so.

Finally you are also using a fairly militant feminist critique of Barbie - that it is a traditional toy that encourages girls to enjoy make-up, pretend boyfriends, dressing up, etc. that apparently those interested in gender equality should ignore. But looking at it more closely, you advise me as a father who wants his daughter to be open to all possible careers to ignore a book about girls being Computer Engineers, because that would give her the wrong message. Surely that would be exactly the message that I wanted to get across? You have substituted your argument "feminists attack Barbie for being girly" for the facts of what we have here. To this end you also dismiss Mattel's answer to the criticism as hopeless damage control against a feminist mob attack (as this doesn't fit your idea of Barbie representing a girly girl), you ignore the diversity of careers that Mattel have given Barbara Millicent Roberts over the years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie%27s_careers), and you ignore that concretely we are talking about a book that is about being a Computer Programmer - all so that you can argue that feminists need to leave Barbie alone and that you can then compare their oppression of girls that want to play with pretty dolls with Russian legislation against alternative sexual orientation.

Girls should be allowed to play with dolls if they want to - and so should boys. Women should be allowed to choose to be hairdressers, air hostesses, or secretaries if they want to and so should men. All walks of life should be represented as possible to children of both genders. All careers and life choices should be open, and socially acceptable, to both genders. This is what I am arguing about gender equality. You appear to be arguing about some kind of oppressive militant feminism, that makes no appearance in the article, or in any of the following comments and I think that is why people are disagreeing with you and getting somewhat frustrated by your seemingly completely over the top analogies.

Now hopefully we can simply agree that whatever life choice you make, traditional or not, you should be accepted and not discriminated against and just leave it at that - without further mention genitals, mutilated or otherwise.
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 6 years ago
Well, good. I think we have come to point where we can agree. Of course traditional roles etc., need to be represented to children as valid choices. This is not an either/or situation. Not one person here has said that Barbie must represent feminist values.

The context of this discussion is not that Air Stewardess Barbie must be discontinued and replaced by Single Mother, Lesbian, NASA Scientist by Day, Crime Fighting Super Heroine by Night Barbie. The context is that Computer Engineer Barbie actually is a Computer Engineer, and not an incompetent games designer that infects everyone's PCs with virus by ignoring the advice of her Computing Teacher about a USB stick (another point in the story).

In "I can be a Computer Engineer" surely the point is not to encourage the creative roles for anyone, or deal with any role traditional or otherwise, except as a side issue to being a Computer Engineer. Why should this book in particular emphasise traditional female roles when it explicitly deals with a non-traditional one? The point is not anything to do with traditional roles but whether or not this book give a positive example for girls about Computer Engineering. It can do that, without trampling on a single value system of anyone. The story and discussion should have been explicitly about one book - I see no logic or sense to carry that over all toys. Repeatedly I have made the point that a whole range of role models and positive examples of non-traditional and traditional roles and life choices should be presented to children and accepted by adults. And it very seems as if you have argued against that proposition as it would be forcing my opinions on other people. I'm glad we have come to the conclusion that actually, we agree on this point.

I think that everyone that has criticised the story in this article should ask themselves how much have they honestly been giving their opinion on the content of the story, and how much they have been reacting negatively to something being criticised as "sexist". Some self reflection may prove valuable.

PS while again this just goes into an unnecessary and unhelpful off-topic argument - I was circumcised for medical reasons at the age of 28. Wherever you get your information about it lessening sensation of intercourse is totally wrong, and I can confirm there is not in the slightest manner that it could be compared to female circumcision in any way, shape or form, except that it has the same name.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 28th November 2014 2:47pm

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Mary Hilton Community Manager, Reclaim Your Game6 years ago
As a woman, and a feminist (as if they're separate entities, which they're not), this 'book' deserved to be ripped apart and taken apart by women. It does us a disservice, and thankfully Mattel has realized that. I hope they do improve and make a better statement of feminist ideals.
But if you want reality to really hit you, if it had not been for a woman, none of us would be using a computer and chatting about equality in the computer world. Admiral Grace Hopper would have been deeply ashamed of this 'book' and would have probably invented the 'feministhackerbarbie' tag if someone else had not already.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper
She was one of the first original computer programmers, and invented a couple of languages for computers. If we cannot remember this woman and try to live up to her standards we are not qualified to talk about equality in the computer industry.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Mary Hilton on 4th December 2014 11:41am

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 6 years ago
But if you want reality to really hit you, if it had not been for a woman, none of us would be using a computer and chatting about equality in the computer world.
That is a gross exaggeration. Without John Neumann and others, there would be no stored program controlled computer which Grace Hopper could have worked with. There were literally dozens of people who worked on these systems, all built on previous ideas and experience.
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