Say hello to Computer Engineer Barbie

Regular readers will recognize that I spend a fair amount of time on this blog talking about things from a feminist slant. I also talk about dolls every now and then. (And warblers but that is totally unrelated to this post.) I also have no problem with Barbie. I think when viewed in the right way she can be a great doll/role model for girls (once you get past the body image thing).

So, I was really excited today when I found out that Mattel had announced Barbie’s next career last week.

Earlier this winter, Barbie held a popular vote for Barbie’s next career. I found out about it through their clever street-side advertisements which showed Barbie’s past careers (astronaut, GI, cop, presidential candidate, teacher . . .) and invited people to vote for her next one. They also apparently conducted a “global career survey” of girls in October of last year. The results have me pleased as punch.

Get ready to say hello to News Anchor and Computer Engineer Barbie!

News Anchor was the top choice among the girls who voted in the “global career survey” and Computer Engineer was the popular online vote choice. (I voted for computer engineer and/or architect. Environmentalist was another option.)

I would have loved to see Barbie in a lab coat or with a draftsman desk, but I’m really excited about both choices. News Anchor Barbie looks cute in a pink suit and high heels sure, but she also has her microphone ready. My favorite accessory is her file folder which she has handy for all of her research notes and interview questions. She reminds me of Elle Woods but with a mic.

Then we have Computer Engineer Barbie who I might actually have to buy because I’m so happy to see her out in the world. I love that Barbie finally has glasses and is shown with flat feet and practical shoes. I like that she is, basically, a computer geek but she gets to have a cute outfit and still look girly while working with computers.

There are a lot of posts out there criticizing the doll and saying it’s not enough to break the stereotype of the male computer engineer. They wonder why Barbie has to have glasses, and how realistic her clothing choices really are. Her pink laptop and the design choices for her news anchor counterpart are also up for discussion.

On the other hand, real computer engineers did have input.

Either way, I think this is a really big step in the right direction. I don’t know how many little girls dream of being a computer engineer, but I bet a lot more might think about it when they see Barbie doing it. Accuracy aside, I think having a hugely popular doll as a computer engineer is also a great way to demystify that profession and, as I said before, make it more approachable to girls.

Finally, as I say whenever Barbie gets some criticism (or kudos), it’s important to remember that first and foremost she is a doll. Barbie might not be the most realistic computer engineer but she does get the field some visibility. And sure most computer engineers won’t wear sparkly leggings and a jacket with a circuit board on it, but Barbie’s a doll. Her clothes are a lot of fun when you think of them not as a typical outfit but as novelty items. As a library professional who happily owns and wears t-shirts from a library comic strip as well as a banned books bracelet, all I can say is maybe Barbie is a computer engineer who’s willing to have a little fun with her wardrobe choices–a quality I value in all of my dolls.

In defense of American Girl (especially Gwen)

Have you heard about the new American Girl doll Gwen? You might have read about it in the New York Post where Andrea Peyser commented on the matter with equal parts information and vitriol.

Gwen is homeless. Peyser tries to comment on the implications of selling a homeless doll for $95 but instead just spends a lot of time talking about her intense dislike of American Girl in general.

I’m really angry about the whole thing.

First and foremost: I know that American Girl dolls are expensive. I was very lucky to receive Molly for Christmas when I was a child. She is still a cherished doll. And I loved her. I also loved all of the books. Say what you will, but American Girl books are excellent historical fiction. Some of the situations are not realistic. But the books set the scene for each time period. They introduce girls to history in a fun way. I used to love Ann Rinaldi and I’d say the American Girl stories work perfectly well as historical fiction for a younger reader.

Second: I think it’s obscene to describe American Girl as a cult of indoctrination. Heaven forbid girls have diverse dolls that can look like them! Even I was annoyed when the 1970s doll, Julie, was Caucasian with her friend Ivy being Chinese–especially in San Francisco. But let’s review: American Girl has dolls who are Spanish, Native American, Black, Chinese, Jewish, and Dutch. There are dolls who have experienced immigration, war, revolution, slavery, the Depression. Characters who have overcome discrimination and hardship. Do you see a bad message yet? I don’t. Those are just the historical dolls.

There are also modern dolls marketed as being “just like you.” And yeah, there might not be homeless girls who will be getting any Christmas gifts let alone an American Girl doll. And maybe there shouldn’t be such a thing as a homeless doll. But there should be books. Because children live in all kinds of situations.

Third: Peyser constantly notes that children treat the American Girl dolls as if they are human. Isn’t that kind of the point of having a doll? Isn’t that the point of toys? Of pretending?

Later on Peyser writes: “For starters, men are bad. Fathers abandon women without cause. She’s also telling me that women are helpless. And that children in this great country, where dolls sell for nearly 100 bucks a pop, are allowed to sleep in motor vehicles. But mothers don’t lose custody over this injustice. Because, you see, they are victims, too.”

I don’t know the full story (and notice there isn’t a book about Gwen specifically so I imagine Peyser doesn’t know it either), so I can’t say for sure, but is there anything that would justify a father abandoning his family? Would it be acceptable if Gwen’s mother burned dinner too many times? How about if she forgot to buy milk? Are those acceptable causes?

As to women being helpless? Again, I don’t know the story, but what if Gwen’s mom was a housewife with no marketable skills? What was she supposed to do? I don’t know about Peyser’s experience but I don’t think it’s magically possible to acquire job experience.

Finally, let’s think about what would happen if, as Peyser suggested, Gwen’s mother lost custody because of this: Gwen would be alone, probably in a group or foster home. She might get lost in the system. She might never see her mother again. She would probably be even more traumatized. Maybe even abused. Yes, an ideal solution for a child. And, of course, this would all be the mother’s fault. She wouldn’t be a victim at all. Because she wanted to wind up homeless and living out of a car. That was her master plan. Gee, I wish I had thought of it myself.

Peyser also kept mentioning girls as young as four pestering their parents to “collect them all.” That is not a cause. It’s an effect. American Girl isn’t making children spoiled and it doesn’t make them want dolls young. Gwen is a strange anomaly in the world of consumerism and dolls. But that doesn’t mean everything they do is wrong. It doesn’t mean we don’t need American Girl dolls to show that there are many different kinds of Americans. It certainly doesn’t mean that a doll can’t be special and that stores can’t be a fun experience for children.

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (a review!)

I have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929) by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lathrop) for a rather long time.

Find it on Bookshop.

Several years ago my mother bought me a reproduction Hitty doll by Robert Raikes (big deal carver of dolls and bears though he no longer seems to be making Hitty dolls). His Hitty is shown in the picture at left.

After buying the doll, and doing a bit of research, we found an edition of Field’s novel with the original 1929 text and illustrations. There is another, newer, edition with updated text by Rosemary Wells and illustrations by Susan Jeffers. The newer book came out, I believe, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Field’s original novel. I never read this version, actually sending it back upon realizing it was an adaptation, but other reviewers’ outrage at the changes suggest I was right to do so. If you haven’t guessed already, Hitty fans are numerous and loyal.

Hitty, amazingly, was real. is but one site dedicated to chronicling the life and history of this amazing doll. The site includes this picture of a Daguerreotype actually mentioned in the novel as well as a variety of other interesting photos and well-researched facts:

As the subtitle suggests, Hitty is already a centenarian at the start of Field’s fictionalized account of her adventures. Safely ensconced in a New York antique store equipped with quill and paper, Hitty decides it is high time to begin setting her story down for posterity. What follows is a children’s novel that truly deserves the Newberry Medal it received in 1930 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Hitty begins her life as a lucky piece of mountain-ash wood carried by an old peddler. In exchange for lodging during a particularly bad Maine winter, the Old Peddler decides to carve his piece of wood into a doll for the family’s seven-year-old child, Phoebe Preble. Hitty and Phoebe have their share of adventures during their time together. More, it might be argued, than one doll could manage (including a section that reads very much like part of Moby Dick geared to a much younger audience). But, as readers realize soon enough, Hitty is no ordinary doll. As the story progresses, Hitty passes through many hands and a variety of owners. Like most things, some owners prove better than others in the same way that certain events of Hitty’s life are more worthy of space in her memoirs than others.

When you realize that this book is from 1929, well before any other doll novels were published, it becomes clear that Hitty is something special because Field did it first. At first, I thought the novel might come off as dated since it was written so long ago. But I was happily proven wrong and found that the text stood up to my modern standards as well as Hitty’s chemise survives her first century. Many of the insights that Hitty expresses throughout the book remain very accurate to this day. Hitty’s calm demeanor and buoyant spirit also help to make this doll downright lovable.

Field’s prose is wonderful. Even though I knew Hitty was safe in the antique shop, each new peril left me fearing for Hitty and in a state of suspense until I found out if she had survived. The people that Hitty passes during the course of her first century are equally well-realized in the text. In terms of classic children’s literature (especially for a younger child), I can’t think of many better examples.

If, you want still more Hitty, you can check out Gail Wilson’s website. This very talented (and expensive) doll makers features her own version of Hitty available both ready-made and as a kit. Here are two examples: