Social media has been in flames the last few days over a (now withdrawn) Barbie-book Mattel published in 2010. It started with a blog post on Pamiedotcom’s Tumblr site. Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer is the gift that keeps on giving to blogs and click bait sites that thrive on stroking our growing sense of gender fairness. A short synopsis: Barbie boasts that she is creating an educational video game involving puppies and blocks in bright colors. Soon, however, we learn that Barbie is not exactly doing any sort of coding, that part is reserved the guys Steven and Brian. Barbie is only involved with the design, which I suppose is fair to expect from a woman who spent almost her entire 55-year old life sashaying runways. But it goes downhill from there. She accidentally unleashes virus attacks that affect not only her own computer, but that of her little sister as well. All is in disarray until our heroes Steven and Brian enter the scene, save Barbie’s face and let her take the full credit in the end. The whole plot is dubious and despite her ambitions, it is clear that Barbie lives in a world where girls simply don’t expect to get equal with the guys in the tech field. Yet something tells me the outraged response is beating a nearly dead horse.
The book was published in 2010 and ice ages have come and gone since then. Over the last few years there has been nothing short of an “awareness revolution” around what toys should be and what messages they should send little girls. When I wrote Growing Up With Princess Inc. in the fourth month of 2011, I lamented that we were at the height of ruthless, profit hungry gender-based marketing era. Books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter started coming out around this time. In the beginning these ideas resonated primarily with self-proclaimed feminists who had furrowed their eyebrows in response to the toy- and entertainment industry’s gender based color palette for years. Most people didn’t really care though, so the manufacturers had no reason to change. We still have pink isles and blue isles, but the selection of toys to be found in each section is starting to show nascent transformations. Pink isles are starting to feature more functional action toys and the young Jamie Olivers of the world can soon forward to Easy-Bake ovens in gender neutral colors. Barbie is late to the game. She was late then and she is late now. This is probably why her brand is losing market share.
Barbie missed two important social shifts affecting its target group. First, Barbie didn’t notice that gender awareness is growing with the newest generation of parents and children. Parents of young children today are younger Generation Xers and Millennials and these cohorts tend to be more tolerant of gender-bending with their children. Politically they also tend to be social liberals. Around the same time that the aforementioned sexist Barbie book came out, support for same-sex marriage tipped over to constitute the majority of Americans. And if you support marriage rights for gay couples, you’ll likely balk at a book that tells your daughter she needs boys to help her code as well. The narrative is changing, and the best strategy Mattel can choose now might be to give Barbie a different type of makeover.
Couple these changing gender views with parents’ growing worry that their kids will fall behind if they don’t learn to literally “crack the code” while they’re still in diapers. Or at least have of their future Silicon Valley start-up careers compromised. Hence, MIT’s Scratch and other spin-offs that promise to teach coding logic to kids are becoming the new language buzz among the parents who once sent their children to Mandarin classes. Barbie simply decided she wanted to become a computer scientist before the coding fad took off and Code School and Code Academy started populating our newsfeeds. And who knows, maybe Steven and Brian’s sexist buddies made the developer classes so unbearable that she decided to stick with design? Barbie doesn’t have an easy time in the school yard either. In this age of self-expression and self-branding she can’t get away with her poised, but flat personality. Replacing her on the throne of popularity emerge instead the mercurial, goth-like Monster High girls who are both strong, deviant and self-assured. Even the Disney princesses have developed more complex character traits lately, adding to Barbie’s diminishing relevance.
Mattel has made some flailing attempts at staying digitally relevant with pretend smart phones with personal assistants so limited that ever Siri would get impatient. Mosts of these plasticky make-believe gadgets suffer from limited functionally and tend to have a strong 2000s feel to them. It’s like they are screaming: “Hey kids, look how cool, fake and blinking I am, and so much fancier I am than you moms iPhone! — Uh, no I can’t actually run real apps…” How long could you keep your 4-year old interested? Barbie’s well-intended make-belief props just can’t compete in today’s tech world and her Mad Men image is long passé. Real engineering toys for girls, such as Goldieblox and Roominate, are popping up all around the willowy blonde. In fact the smartest toys today are not developed by the big toy companies, but by Silicon Valley alumni. While the tech industry’s steady encroachments into our brick-and-mortar world is a troubling trend, they are answering a growing demand in the toy market. And the toy industry should pay close attention.
Generation Z is aware of gender stereotypes and vocal about it. At SXSW last year young girls complained about getting harassed on Minecraft. Today Minecraft is taken over by girls. Now have people like Anita Sarkeesian’s taking on Gamergate. Young girls publicly admonishing pink isles and blue isle or Lego for making limited sets for girls are going viral. Big sisters raise petitions to create gender-neutral easy-bake ovens for their little brothers. And now, ToysRUs in the UK is discontinuing gender segregation. All the recent talk of getting kids, especially girls, into STEM is starting to become so mainstream and buzzy that I bet it’s peaking on Gartner’s hype cycle this very moment.
The fact that gender equality in toys is being addressed is no guarantee of any predicted outcome. But as someone who has followed generational trends in the childcare market for years, I’m seeing a sharp shift in awareness which, if ignored by toy manufacturers, would amount to corporate suicide. Innovation in the toy industry was lagging after the last recession, but this is quickly changing. I guess the telltale sign of change will be when Barbie one day reveals what disruptive strategies she has hidden up her sequined sleeve.