TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Women in the technology field have faced all manner of insults, including, most recently, GamerGate, which highlighted sexism and harassment in video game culture. This week, the insult came from a seemingly more benign source, but one that set off a loud online cry of - are you kidding me? A book called "Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer" was originally published in 2010. But this week, author and Disney screenwriter Pamela Ribon took to her website to excoriate some glaring stereotypes in the book which she only came across just recently.
PAMELA RIBON: I was at my friend Helen Jane's house and I found this book on her table. I said oh, that's so exciting. "Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer," like, this is very exciting. And she said oh, now I'm really going to break your soul (laughter).
VIGELAND: So Pamela Ribon started reading.
RIBON: It starts so promising. Barbie's designing a game to show kids how computers work. This is for school. She's going to make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks. Skipper asks if she can play the game and Barbie says, I'm only creating the design ideas, Barbie says, laughing. I'll need Steven and Brian's help to turn it into a real game.
VIGELAND: Barbie gets a virus on the computer, which then infects another computer and - oh dear.
RIBON: So then she asks some boys to fix it for her. And they say it'll go faster if Brian and I help, offers Steven (laughter).
VIGELAND: At the end of the day, Barbie takes credit for the boys' work. Ribon was ticked off. She wrote about it on her blog on Monday. The tech blog Gizmodo picked it up, and by Tuesday, it had gone viral.
RIBON: Everybody was just enraged with me, which was so nice (laughter). From the very beginning, it was I hear you. I support men and women across the board. People were upset for their daughters and their sons and schools. And, you know, whether or not Barbie wants to be a role model, she's in that position.
VIGELAND: Midweek, Mattel issued an apology on the official Barbie Facebook page saying, quote, "The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story does not reflect the brand's vision for what Barbie stands for." Writer Pamela Ribon thinks that's a good first step, but she's been more impressed by how people online have responded.
RIBON: I mean, give the Internet a problem, it'll fix itself (laughter) with a lot of flair. People on the Internet have made hundreds of different versions of this book now because of Feminist Hacker Barbie's site.
VIGELAND: That site, Feminist Hacker Barbie, was created by Kathleen Tuite, a computer scientist in Santa Cruz, California.
KATHLEEN TUITE: So one of my friends posted this call-to-action on Facebook that was like hey, other lady programmer friends, can we crowdsource some feminist/hacker text to paste over the originals? And I was like hmm, I do a lot of crowdsourcing app design. Maybe I can make this up.
VIGELAND: She put together a website that allows users to write their own text for the illustrations in the Barbie book.
TUITE: One of the very first ones that came in was basically a role reversal. Instead of Barbie as the game designer, she was the game programmer. It says Barbie worked hard to implement Steven and Brian's gameplay designs. Although she enjoys writing the code to bring these designs to life, she also respects the knowledge of user experience that designers like Brian can bring to the table.
VIGELAND: Kathleen Tuite says she's gotten more than 2000 submissions.
TUITE: These improved revisions that we're seeing now actually give a better sense of what it's like to be an engineer.
VIGELAND: Across the country, another woman in the computer science field was also getting fired up about the Barbie book. Casey Fiesler is a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech.
CASEY FIESLER: Well, originally when I saw this story I thought, you know what is great about this though is that obviously what's going to happen is someone's going to write a new book or it's going to become a meme or something like that. And I thought I should actually just do it myself.
VIGELAND: Fiesler got to work in Photoshop and rewrote the entire book, so that instead of the computer virus being the big problem, Barbie is upset about something else.
FIESLER: I thought well, maybe she's upset about sexism in computing. So she is making a game, and she's making a game in collaboration with the boys. And she says that when she posted about her game on Twitter, people assumed that she must be the designer but boys were doing the coding.
VIGELAND: So in Fiesler's story, one of the boys is the designer and Barbie is the coder. Fiesler says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
FIESLER: And I've had people tweeting at me and leaving comments saying that they printed it out and read it to their kids, that their daughters were so excited and they want to be computer scientists. I've had people ask me if they can translate it into other languages.
VIGELAND: One part of this story, though, has gotten ugly. The woman who wrote the original book for Mattel told ABC News that she's gotten hundreds of nasty emails and is scared to open many of them. She told ABC that she regrets that she may have let stereotypes slip into the book. Earlier this week, Mattel and publisher Random House pulled the book from Amazon and announced that the print and e-book publication will be discontinued.
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