The Barbie fixation

What do eBay's Meg Whitman and Apple's iBook have in common? Could it be sexist journalism?

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Pubescent boys have long known that "girly" and "sissy" are among the worst epithets that you could pin on a growing guy. Call it sandbox sexism: a demeaning insult that teaches young boys that manly is always superior to feminine. Adults, of course, should know better -- but this week, not one but two technology magazines have been reduced to disturbing Barbie doll metaphors and "girly" name-calling. Just when Hewlett Packard's new CEO, Carly Fiorina, thought women in computing were getting some respect, the technology press turns around and slaps women with that sexist "Barbie" label.

First, we get John Dvorak dismissing the iBook in his latest PC Magazine column for being too "girly," too "effeminate," something no frat boy would ever want to use. "The only thing missing from the new Apple iBook is the Barbie logo," he writes. "You expect to see lipstick, rouge, and a tray of eye shadow inside when you open it up. You don't expect to see a 12-inch LCD; you expect to see a 12-inch mirror. No male in his right mind will be seen in public with this notebook."

Putting aside the general merits of the iBook's design (which, I would argue, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a woman's compact, and doesn't even come in pink), Dvorak's article is chock-full of sexist stereotypes. There's the assumption that girls don't really use computers, and that therefore all computers should be designed to appeal to men first and foremost. Then there's the notion that "girl" equals makeup -- and Barbie. And finally, we're reminded that no man would want to be associated with anything "girly" -- just to carry around an object that some might find effeminate is an "embarrassment." (Someone at the UK edition of PC Magazine must have realized that his column was a sexist gaffe: there, the "letters to the editor" link at the bottom of the column suggests that "Dvorak is dealing in sexist stereotypes and is biased because he writes for PC Magazine anyhow.")

But Dvorak isn't the only journalist to fall back on that old Barbie gag. Moving next door on the newsstand, the latest cover of Red Herring boasts an image of eBay CEO Meg Whitman's head pasted on the body of, yes, a Barbie doll. The caption: "eBay: The Internet's sexiest new business model."

Playing up the sex appeal of female technology executives is an old game for business magazines looking for newsstand sales, and one that dismisses the real achievements of women in favor of their looks. After all, it's not likely that the Herring would put a picture of Larry Ellison's head slapped on top of a Ken doll, with the subtext that his business decisions are macho.

The Red Herring's choice of the Barbie cover is ironic, considering that editor Jason Pontin recently told Salon Technology that technology magazines had a challenge to portray women as "effective executives," not just as sexy babes. Never mind the fact that in their eagerness to play the Barbie card, the Red Herring got its facts wrong: Meg Whitman previously worked for Hasbro, the competitor to Barbie franchise-owning Mattel.

Now that nearly 50 percent of the online population is female, and women like Whitman and Fiorina are at the helm of powerful technology companies, perhaps it's time for the industry to stop ogling women in technology as if they were misplaced novelties. Women use computers, women run computer companies; equating them with busty plastic dolls shows that no matter whether we've come a long way, baby, not everyone has kept up.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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