Will a Barbie computer make math easy?

Mattel is making a pink Barbie computer and a blue Hot Wheels computer, but why is it choosing such different software for each?

Published August 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week, John Dvorak wrote that Apple's new iBook was too "girly" -- that all it needed was a Barbie logo to finish off its effeminate look. Mattel must have been listening: On Tuesday, the giant toy company announced that it would not only produce a Barbie computer, but a Hot Wheels one to boot.

The kiddie computers, which come with Intel chips and Windows 98 processing systems, will go on sale in September. The Barbie model will come in silver with "pink and purple floral accents," plus a flower-bedecked mouse, mousepad and digital camera. Loaded on the computer will be software such as Barbie Cool Looks Fashion Designer, Barbie Riding Club, The Ultimate Writing and Creative Center and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. And, to prove that this is no "math is hard" Barbie computer, it will also come with Math Workshop software.

The Hot Wheels version, in contrast, will come in blue and yellow with the Hot Wheels flame logo, but no digital camera. In place of fashion and writing software, it will come with Myst, Hot Wheels Custom Car Designer and The Oregon Trail: Pioneer Adventures, plus the Math Workshop.

The blue and pink computers would seem to encourage boys to take up car design and girls to learn typing. Will they get more kids excited about technology? The $599 price tag for a computer plus monitor could entice parents. But girl-game industry veterans have long questioned the practice of resorting to flowers, bows, busty blond dolls and gender stereotypes to convince girls that computers aren't just for geeky boys.

Justine Cassel, professor at the MIT Media Lab and coauthor of "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat," points out that Lego's experiment with pink Legos was a failure; just because you cover a traditionally boy product with girlish clichis doesn't guarantee girls will like it. And what messages will a girl get from the fashion and typing software? As Cassel muses, "Maybe the color of the computer is going to get the girl to turn it on. That's great. But once she turns it on is she going to do something no one else is going to do?"

If she'd rather get nongirly software, maybe she -- and her brother -- should just get an iBook.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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