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Mixed messages

One of my colleagues recently pointed out that there’s a Ruby Rails action figure [1]. Since I teach a software design sequence that relies on Ruby on Rails, I thought I’d check it out. At first glance, it seemed exciting. Ruby Rails is a young African American girl who likes to program.

Of course, I’m not sure that I completely understand the description.

Ruby Rails is an adventurous, code-cracking software engineer and one of Goldie’s best friends. With her Parachute, Ruby Rails is out to teach and demonstrate the core concept of aerodynamics.

I didn’t think that software engineers cracked code. That seems to be more a security issue. And, while most software engineers I know do like extreme adventures, I had not previously thought about software engineering as being tied to either parachuting or aerodynamics. Still, the basic message that girls can be software engineers [2] is an important one. And it’s only ten bucks. So I ordered one. At worst, Ruby can hang with Software Engineer Barbie [3] or GameDev Barbie [4].

Of course, I decided to further explore the broader world that Ruby Rails occupies. It appears that she is part of the GoldieBlox universe and that GoldieBlox is designed to encourage girls to explore engineering [5]. Another laudable goal.

But I looked further. And my students and colleagues have now trained me to view things with a more critical lens. What I saw disturbed me. Let’s start with GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine. What do we see on the cover image? A blonde white girl is sitting in the director’s chair while a Latina-presenting girl is turning a crank and an Asian-looking person is doing the work of putting the pictures in the movie machine. What message does that send? Not a positive one, as far as I can tell.

Or check out this description of GoldieBlox and the Parade Float.

In this kit, Goldie’s friends Ruby and Katinka compete in a talent show for a chance to ride on a float in the town parade. When Ruby wins, Katinka is devastated. Help Goldie and Ruby build a parade float to console Katinka and discover the power of friendship.

My first reading of this was disappointing. As far as I can tell, it suggests that when a member of a minority group wins a competition, they have an obligation to support the ego of the losing majority competitor [7]. It also undermines the growth mindset; wouldn’t it be more powerful if Katinka decided to work on skills for the next year or even figured out that she could build herself a parade float.

Then I looked further. It turns out that Katinka is a pink creature of some sort, perhaps a dolphin [8]. So now it appears that Ruby was competing in a talent show against an animal. That seems almost as problematic. You beat the animal. Now you have to build a float for it. Yay empowerment!

If I notice these issues as a cisgender, hetero, high-SES, relatively clueless, adult, white-ish male, why aren’t the people who are creating these supposedly empowering toys paying attention? It’s almost as bad as swimming posters.

[1] I’ve archived the image of the action figure set.

[2] Or grow up to be software engineers.

[3] Software Engineer Barbie keeps a Tux doll on her shelf. You can tell she rocks.

[4] Does it say something that I seem to accumulate toys that are designed to encourage young women to pursue tech careers? On that note, does anyone have an African-American Software Engineer Barbie that they’re willing to part with?

[5] Among other things, GoldieBlox teaches girls some of the reasons that real engineers don’t rely on flimsy cardboard for real construction [6].

[6] Explanation: The GoldieBlox toys seem to generally be built from flimsy cardboard. The Amazon reviews keep coming back to adults’ dissatisfaction with that issue.

[7] Yeah, I get the friendship thing. But good friends celebrate each others’ victories rather than ask for additional support.

[8] There’s a limit to how much time I’ll spend looking into these issues.

Version 1.0 released 2018-04-11.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-04-11.