Barbie, Remixed: I (really!) can be a computer engineer.

I am a PhD student in a computing department, so I guess it’s not surprising that my social media feeds have been full of outrage over Barbie’s “computer engineering” skills. The blog post that originally went viral appears to be sporadically down due to heavy traffic, but The Daily Dot also has a good summary of the problematic book titled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. The problematic part is that, as far as I can tell, the steps for becoming a computer engineer if you’re Barbie are:

  1. Design a videogame.
  2. Get a boy to code it for you.
  3. Accidentally infect your computer with a virus.
  4. Get a boy to fix it for you.
  5. Take all the credit for these things yourself.

And the problem isn’t even that Barbie isn’t a “real” computer scientist because she isn’t coding. (I am one of those mostly-non-coding computer scientists myself, though now I’m tempted to make a game about robot puppies shooting lasers anyway.) The problem is the assumption that she is a designer, not a coder, and the coders are boys. (There are also problems with nonsense explanations for computer viruses, taking credit for other people’s work, and inexplicable pillow fights.)

I happen to study remix, so one of my first thoughts upon seeing this was: someone is obviously going to remix this. I figured, why wait? I also have at my disposal my roommate Miranda Parker, a student of Mark Guzdial, who studies computing education and broadening participation in STEM. So with her input, I rewrote the book with a slightly different spin. (I also kept her as a “computer engineer” even though she’s really more of a computer scientist, software developer, etc.)  I hope you like this new narrative better, too!

barbieremix1You can download the entirety of the remixed book here, but here are a few of my favorite pages.
barbieremix3barbieremix4barbieremix9barbieremix11

About the remixer: I’m a PhD student in Human-Centered Computing at Georgia Tech, I have an impressive collection of Holiday Barbies, and sadly my high school had no computer science classes so I didn’t learn to code until college. I’m also a member of the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works, and my dissertation research is on copyright and online remix communities. One of my favorite things about remix: If you don’t like the narrative, change it!

Update: The response to this has been incredibly overwhelming! I’m very thankful to everyone who has shared this or said a kind word, and thrilled that people care so much about the issue of representation of women in computing. If you’re interested in the copyright issues associated with this kind of remix, I wrote another post about that: Fair Use Barbie. I also wrote a piece for Slate about the inspiration behind this remix.

This non-commercial transformative work (Barbie, Remixed) constitutes fair use under Section 107 of the U.S. copyright act. Use of copyrighted material is necessary for the purpose of criticism and education, the images are only at the resolution necessary for this purpose, and this remix is clearly marked to avoid confusion with the original.

Creative Commons License
Barbie, Remixed by Casey Fiesler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.amazon.com/Actress-Computer-Engineer-Barbie-Pictureback-ebook/dp/B00CNQ9L5E.

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315 Comments on “Barbie, Remixed: I (really!) can be a computer engineer.

  1. Casey, this is brilliant. Clever, on point and with well-deserved snark. I’m a software engineer up in Chicago and I’m looking forward to seeing women like you lead the charge against the testosterone-driven fools who make up so much of the industry. I’ll be reading your version of the book to my 8-year-old daughter this evening. Thanks again.

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  5. I think someone should write a series of Ken books which have the same basic plot line as the Barbie books with the gender roles switched. So for Ken’s version of the computer engineer book it would go basically like this:

    Design a videogame.
    Get a girl to code it for you.
    Accidentally infect your computer with a virus.
    Get a girl to fix it for you.
    Take all the credit for these things yourself.

    And we’d all basically look at that story and collectively conclude that Ken’s got real upper management potential!

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  7. Looks like Amazon removed the original book from their site. It was for sale this morning and now it isn’t.

    I’m not saying this remix was directly responsible, but it certainly helped get it some attention. Nice going!

  8. “Really good games are made by a team of people”

    Dude, why did you have to shit on indie game designers like that? Just off the top of my head, Cave Story is an amazing game, as is Dwarf Fortress.

  9. How very awesome.

    As a person who has designed sites for ages but never coded, I feel inspired. I honestly never thought about it as a gender thing, but I know the developers I work with are always like “yeah and this one developer WHO IS A GIRL btw…” It’s like they’re shocked that it’s possible. 😉

    Thanks for this most excellent Barbie story!

    • It’s not a gender thing so much as being more of a “loser” thing.

      No, stay with me here. I spent years locked in the basement, learning BASIC and then assembly, because I was painfully introverted. Do some asking around. Know any outgoing, well adjusted fun-loving social people who know C? Yeah, that one guy in college who wrote pretty good code — that’s one, and the exception proves the rule.

      Programming is good pay but how many 11 year olds think long term like that? They go for what is intrinsically interesting to them. Nerds go for nerd stuff.

      Let’s take you and me — I wager you and I are mainstream examples of what we do. I can sit down and decompile/disassemble (debug, if you like) a DLL and tell you how it works. I can also make a “business card” site in HTML 4… and that’s it. You are probably a master of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, CSS, and are learning HTML 5. I do what I do because I, and other people who do it, were social retards and considered losers. There are women in that group too, though not as many. And there you are looking exuberant in a yellow dress and probably are NOT considered a loser. You were not surrounded by the elements necessary to cultivate a talent for writing code (sitting in darkness all day long while mom yells to go outside). You were probably the little girl who actually DID go outside and were creative. Nerd/shut in versus not-nerd.

      • I don’t understand this assumption that girls are not nerds/shut-ins/losers. There’s a social expectation for women to be more social, emotional, and outgoing, but that doesn’t mean that that is the way that all females are by nature. I, for example, am female–and I’ve always been introverted, socially awkward, and was pretty much a social outcast and loner in school. I spent more time on my room than was probably healthy and I spent the time in nerdy obscure pursuits. There’s a big possibility that, if have had a bit more exposure to gaming and programming instead of being bombarded with toys/tools for typical female pursuits, that I would have tinkered on that. (There’s also the aspect that my parents were poor and couldn’t afford buying me a computer until high school). I discovered programming in college and liked it. I wish I discovered it sooner…I’m pretty much close to graduating in a completely unrelated major and am too late to change it. But anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that female nerds (whether in coding or any other area of specialty) aren’t that uncommon. It does, however, take a lot of courage for women to go against the current and pursue subjects considered “a male subject”, since those typical “male subjects” tend, on my experience, to be populated by people who are hostile to “little girls” encroaching on their territory. This is especially true in gaming and STEM fields.

      • I very much resent the assumption that the majority of females are outgoing and social. Actually, they are usually MORE introverted and self-conscious. Girls are MEAN to each other, and to ourselves, and not many males know that. We are mean to each other because we are insecure about ourselves, due to many different factors, and that makes us lash out at others. I was told I was stupid, ugly, a loser, a f*ggot, ALL of which by other girls who I knew were self-conscious and insecure. Regrettably, I have lashed out and insulted other women, as well. It’s hard to be a confident, outgoing woman.

        Not every insecure female turns to video games, science, coding, etc. but that’s not for lack of interest. We are told by all the men who enjoy those same things that we are basically not welcome there, whether it be in conversations regarding such topics, online forums, MMOs, or classes/clubs. Every time I start talking about my favorite video games (I am a huge video game lover), men look surprised, and it kind of hurts. I don’t have the money to buy all the video games I want to play, nor do I have the consoles, and that is a very common problem. But when I admit that I haven’t played this game, or that one, or that other one, other male gamers scoff and say things like “You’re not a REAL gamer.” But they almost NEVER interrogate other male gamers about whether or not they know every game this specific company has made, and all the cheats and bugs, and if they’ve played this game and that game. They only seem to question the female gamers.

        Also, the “elements necessary to cultivate a talent for writing code” is absolute BS. There is no such thing. It has nothing to do with how much time you spent in your bedroom staring at a computer screen, although if you have an interest in computer science you will most likely be spending a lot of time doing that very activity. What determines your talent for anything is how your brain works. Everyone has something they are good at because it just CLICKS with them. Their thought process is perfect for doing that activity. If you have the right mind for working with computers, you will show exceptional talent in that if you apply yourself. And if you don’t have the right mind for something, then you will probably not succeed in it. Some people practice so much at a certain activity that they go from having no natural talent to being very talented over time, but that is dedication to pushing past those learning barriers, and not the same as having the “necessary elements to cultivate a talent.”

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  11. I loved this so much! I am so sick of that kind of sexism in the technology field, being a computer student, your version is so much better.

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  13. Designers have their place, too. But don’t let that get in the way of The Outrage. Here’s my first page explaining further: http://i.imgur.com/pSAGy7k.png
    So they depict Barbie as a designer. SO WHAT. Maybe the book simply isn’t the book you want it to be. Maybe it’s not about Barbie learning to write code; to crap on design work is just foolish. If they show Barbie on a cruise ship I suppose she can’t just enjoy the $%^&*ing ride, she’s gotta be the engineer who designed the ship too.

    • Actually one of the things that bothered me about the original criticism around the book was that it did seem to belittle the role of design. One of the things I tried to emphasize was that design is an important part of the team! In my story, Brian is the designer and his contribution is valued.

    • Design isn’t engineering. Design is important, without art you don’t have compelling images. Without a good user interface, you can’t have a playable game. Without sound design you don’t have the sound effects that add the right kind of realism.

      Engineering is important to game design too, but the role of a software engineer is nearly invisible to the end user. The designers defined game play, look and feel, and so forth. A software engineer (or a team, or just someone wearing that hat for a few days) worked to make it possible to achieve the designer’s vision by creating the graphics engine, the game engine, the sprite system, particle systems (for sparkle effects) sound placement in 3D (so the dog can sneak up behind you), and so forth. There could also be a large range of coders involved both to implement the core parts that needed the attention of an engineer, and to build out all the myriad details that make a game compelling, or perhaps just work at all.

      My biggest problem with this book is that as it has been described in all the reviews and fussing about it (to be fair I have not seen the whole content of the original) it promises that Barbie can be an engineer and then never even comes close to depicting any kind of engineering.

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  15. “The problem is the assumption that she is a designer, not a coder, and the coders are boys.”

    Why are you trivializing design? Human-computer interface and game design is a very real part of computer science.

    Also, computer science != programming and coding. Mechanical engineering isn’t all about turning parts on a lathe.

    • I’m going to repeat something I just wrote above. 🙂 Actually one of the things that bothered me about the original criticism around the book was that it did seem to belittle the role of design. One of the things I tried to emphasize was that design is an important part of the team! In my story, Brian is the designer and his contribution is valued.

      I’m a computer scientist who doesn’t do much coding myself, actually!

      • So why did you feel the need to make Barbie switch to coding from design? HCI research is very important, and many computer science departments offer game design courses.

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  18. I get the “don’t like it — remix it” part, but is there really no way to feature Barbie as a software engineer without making derogatory remarks towards Ken? Even if you do not like this particular persona (I don’t), there are so many decent, ethical and occasionally feminist software engineers out there. It’s just not fair to them. Just like the original authors of the book were not fair to us, female programmers.

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  21. a small quibble: speaking as someone who spent more than a decade studying physics at the post-secondary level, i cannot believe any story that has someone say “I think I want to be a physicist.”

    • I went to school with a girl who said that and that’s exactly what she became. I have no idea what she does because that’s about all she was allowed to say last time I saw her! Of course, we did go to an all girls school. It was designated a language college, but had the best STEM results for girls in the whole area.

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  25. I love what you have done here. The stigma around gender based roles needs to end. We are in the 20th century and can be anything we want to be, regardless of what sex we are! Very good blog, keep it up 🙂

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  27. I’m old fashioned enough most of my beliefs are labelled as bigotic these days, and I absolutely despise @femfreq, which I see you refer to in your tweets… And yet I couldn’t help but enjoy this. Well done. You should do consulting for feminist groups, people may just discover a message has a much greater chance to be heard when it’s based on building something you like (like your remix) rather than destroying something you dislike.

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  29. Great remix =D
    I’m studying electrical engineering. I’m so often asked why I would do that if it’s a men’s field, even by women ! Thankx for all women who love Sciences =)

  30. I love the remix! Well done. Too many women are told through media that they wouldn’t be successful in science. It’s time to change that!

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  32. I love your version of this book! I especially like that you had Brian and Steve working with Barbie with equally valuable roles. Some of the rewrites I’ve seen just have Barbie as some uber programmer/hacker and the boys as idiots, which just throws the sexism in the other direction.

    I’ve been very fortunate in my career to be on teams with relatively evenly split genders amongst engineers and even further fortunate that most of my engineering managers (I’ve had 6 male and 2 female) are equally supportive of the entire team. And yet, I’ve still had to deal with guys like Ken, or reactions like the Twitter response. Gender bias is very real in this industry. Thank you for painting a realistic picture of a female programmer.

  33. Well Done! (If I could add something, I think it would be worth changing all cases of “computer engineer” to “computer scientist”, that is really what her subject would have been).. you should definitely get them to publish your version and shred the other

    • Disagree here. Coding is not computer science, never mind that most “computer science” graduates end up as glorified coders. Computer science is analyzing code and algorithms for their asymptotic complexity, working with regular languages and parsers, mapping language classes to push-down automata and so on.

      “Engineering” is a much more apt categorization than “science” for what Barbie is purportedly doing here.

      It would be similar saying “Barbie does aerodynamical science” when Barbie designs and assembles an RC plane all by herself. It’s a real impressive feat that one should not ruin by overselling it as something it isn’t.

      • Computer engineering involves IC design and digital logic. While you are right, coding a game is not Computer science, her title should really be Software Engineer because in this story, Barbie is engaging in Software Engineering.

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