Dissecting the Barbie debate

Why did my criticism of John Dvorak's iBook critique incite a media firestorm?

Published August 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

According to visitors to the Silicon Spin Web site, I "lost" a debate about the iBook with John Dvorak this week. According to more than half of the visitors who responded to a poll on the site, the iBook is a "girly machine" that no "real man" would ever carry. According to some of the e-mail that I've been getting, I'm a "feminist Nazi," a "PC whiner," a suppressor of free speech and a list of other choice words that I won't repeat here.

It all began last week, when I called John Dvorak on a column that he wrote for PC Magazine -- an article that called the iBook sissy, girly, effeminate and doomed to failure because "no real man" would ever carry it. My point was that it is sexist to equate "manly" with good and "girly" with undesirable; it's one of a number of derogatory gender stereotypes that many of us were taught at a very young age. I also wanted to point out that just because a computer doesn't appeal to men like Dvorak, doesn't mean that it will fail in the marketplace -- after all, plenty of women, and men with different tastes than Dvorak's, buy computers, too. My article was not an attack on Dvorak; my story looked at the way women are often diminished in technology journalism, and included a discussion of a Red Herring cover that portrayed eBay CEO Meg Whitman's head on a Barbie body.

But the point of my story was soon lost in a storm of media attention that pitted Dvorak against me in a man vs. "feminist" battle. By Thursday, I had hundreds of e-mails -- pro and con -- in my in box. ZDTV, thrilled to be encouraging a debate that might increase viewership, invited me to provide a sound byte for that evening's news. Next, the Silicon Spin Web site created a special area to egg on the "fight," pitting me against Dvorak and inviting readers to weigh in -- which they did, in spades, and mostly in defense of Dvorak.

And to cap it off, on Thursday Silicon Spin aired a "special" program between myself, Dvorak and three other Net pundits. The questions we were asked to debate: Is John Dvorak a sexist pig? Should he be fired? And so on.

The show was trying to be the Jerry Springer of technology journalism. As Dvorak himself confessed on the Silicon Spin show, he made those "girly" remarks primarily to elicit a strong reader reaction -- not because he necessarily believed what he wrote. It's not an uncommon practice among columnists. Dvorak, himself, used to call the IBM a "a man's computer designed by men for men," according to Steven Levy. In 1984, in the San Francisco Examiner he wrote that "the Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a 'mouse.' There is no evidence that people want to use these things."

Cat-fighting makes good TV. But the way Silicon Spin's Brown vs. Dvorak panel was structured didn't allow for anything like thoughtful, nuanced debate about topics that are as sensitive as sexism, stereotyping and ingrained gender roles. It's difficult to formulate insightful commentary on a TV show that is striving to determine who is "right" and who is "wrong" -- but it's great for encouraging the kind of nasty, puerile insults that the Silicon Spin bulletin boards are now overflowing with.

Ultimately, I don't want to be part of the fight. I don't care if John Dvorak is fired or promoted. But I do care whether the technology industry operates under the assumption that women aren't serious users of computers. I care about the fact that, despite nearly 100 years of feminism, some people still feel that computers need to be pink and "girly" or blue and "manly" in order to appeal to the various sexes. I care that industry pundits still preach that technology needs to be designed for "real men" to be successful -- because, after all, I use technology and I'm a woman.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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