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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

April 18, 2010 - 10:44pm

Ann Zimmerman reports in The Wall Street Journal that, thanks in large part to a viral campaign by female computer engineers, Computer Engineer Barbie will be one of two new models in Mattel's "I Can Be..." line. (The other will be TV Anchor Barbie, elected by young girls around the world.) Here's what she will look like, according to Zimmerman:

A ponytailed doll in black leggings and a top decorated in binary code that spells Barbie, and lots of pink accessories—geek-chic glasses, Bluetooth headset and shoes.

(In case you're wondering, those shoes will be the same crippling high heels, since Barbie's feet won't accommodate normal-height shoes.)

I grew up playing with Barbies. I liked her cool outfits, and I liked even more the ones my grandmother sewed and knitted for her. I enjoyed using her and her friends to act out fantasy games about being a grownup with my own friends. My neighbor Linda and I once even staged an abridged version of Gone with the Wind starring Barbie, Midge (as Melanie), two Kens, and several Betsy McCall dolls. We had a blast.

But Barbie, like GWTW, transmitted messages we didn't even know we were taking in. As we became adolescents, few of us were satisfied with our normal, healthy bodies -- some of us hated our substantial thighs; others our minuscule breasts. There are myriad reasons for this self-rejection, of course, but it's hard not to draw lines between Barbie's longstanding status as the best-selling doll in the world and the body-image issues so many girls suffer from.

Since everyone is buying the doll anyway, of course it's great that a broad spectrum of career choices is presented. It's good to remind girls of the possibilities ahead of them. And because we're dealing with fantasy, I guess there's nothing wrong with glamming the profession up a bit. As one "computer nerd" quoted in the article put it, "There is a perception that an interest in math, science and computers means being socially awkward and boring and sacrificing the opportunity to be creative and fun," and perhaps the availability of an adorable, pink-clad Computer Engineer Barbie will help to alter that perception, and not place added pressure on girls to be brilliant, successful AND sexy and "feminine." Perhaps.

But if you click over to the comments on the article, it seems significant that the first comment is a complaint that real-life women engineers don't look like that, and the second attempts to defend women in the field by describing the writer's sister as beautiful and hip. Would we defend Bill Gates against the charge that he's less rugged and handsome than Ken by pointing out his gorgeousness, or dismiss the entire question as irrelevant to his brilliance in his chosen field?

I would love to hear the reactions of the computer and math people to this.


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