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Co-opting Barbie

Internet, we have to talk about the “feminist hacker barbie” meme. To catch you up: There’s a 2010 book by Mattel called “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer“. It portraits Barbie as someone who needs boys to write the code for her computer game, who infects everyone with computer viruses and is all around pretty terrible. In short:

With the recent attention this thing got Casey Fiesler – a PhD student in a computing department – remixed the book’s story into a more positive and empowering tale. It paints a picture of a competent programmer and human being and emphasizes all aspects of creating software. Technical and social. It’s really awesome, check it out.

Of course that idea sparked the internet meme machine and everybody jumped on the “remix the Barbie story” bandwagon. Unfortunately this is were this thing went a bit off the rails, in my opinion. What started as a feminist meme got sucked into Nerd and Hacker culture losing meaning and its positiveness in the process. A lot of these new memes present Barbie as someone spouting complicated computer jargon snobishly at bystanders. The true mark of a wise nerd, I guess. Attributing awful male-associated power mechanisms like using knowledge for the sake of control to a toy aimed at little girls doesn’t feel like a very positive message to me.

In other remixes Barbie is into open-source or infosec, talking cheerfully about software projects that don’t even have named female contributors in reality. Again I think these comics are not directed at the audience of the original book or even those that are rightly offended by it. They feel like in-jokes that also absolve communites of the hard work they’ve got to do. It basically devolves into dudes making old xkcd jokes while congratulating themselves on being feminist.

I know that’s mean and I don’t want to attack or shame anybody, but I feel we should all look back at Casey Fiesler’s original remix and think about its message instead of laughing at an image of Barbie shouting technobabble to feel superior. Because I’m not even sure why we are laughing. Is it because it’s Barbie who says these things? Or is it because being a socially inept human being is what validates you as a good coder? I don’t get it.