No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

Love, Devotion, Surrender

5:00 AM at San Francisco Airport, Gate 41. A young mother, whose orange capped son sleeps profoundly across her lap, is not faring well with her mobile phone call. Her voice cuts like a razor through the somnolent silence. Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, she cries. I don’t speak Spanish so it is the only word of her conversation I understand. The rest of the half-asleep passengers pretend not to listen.

Her nails are elaborately pretty. There is a catch in her voice. The phone call ends and she hums to her child. She is so young.

Tested

WE ARE at a test prep program in Flatiron, where Ava is grudgingly taking an entrance exam. Lance, the program director, is good. He guarantees he can get Ava into a good middle school if she works. She is very resistant but between us we are making some progress.

The place is about as fun-oriented as it could be. Lance is a game designer and animator. He is honest and doesn’t talk down to kids.

But Ava is angry. She does not want to be here. Like many artistic people, she hates doing anything that doesn’t interest her. Also she sees the prep school as evidence that her mom and I think she is “retarded” and needs special help. (Ava’s dyslexia and ADHD make school a painful challenge and constantly undermine her confidence and self esteem.)

I’ve explained that plenty of kids get tutored because of NYC’s tough middle school competitiveness. And her mom and I want her to have the same advantage other kids competing for middle school space will have.

So far she isn’t buying it.

She had a tough week while I was away on business. Followed by a euphoric Halloween night with her best friend. And now, this.

Doing the right thing for a kid can be tough. Especially when her anxiety interprets new challenges as painful proof that she is unloved. If she could only see herself through my eyes.

Ava is answering multiple choice math questions but I am the one being tested.

A Sickroom With a View

CHICAGO is a dynamite town, but it may not be the best place to recover from a cold. Since I arrived, my virus has gone from a 4 to an 11. There’s a spectacular view out my hotel window, which I’ve spent the day ignoring by sleeping. I have several nice friends in this town who I’m similarly ignoring, having canceled plans with them today because of this fershlugginer cold. I was flat on my back, sleeping, my phone like a cat on my chest, when my dad called this afternoon to recommend gargling with a three percent peroxide solution. My trainer texted a moment later to ixnay the peroxide. She recommended going back to bed to finish sweating it out, and that looks like my plan for the next twelve hours, give or take a hot bath.

I brought a heap of work with me to Chicago, planning to tackle it between visits with Chicagoland friends, but the cold has pushed all chance of work aside. I got one sentence written for an Ask Dr Web column—the easiest task on my plate—and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t so much write that sentence as copy and paste it from a reader’s email. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even a sentence. It was a question, which the column I was going to write was supposed to answer. So the sum total of my work today consisted of selecting and copying a question and pasting it into a blank piece of digital paper. Also answering the phone, and removing the Do Not Disturb sign from my door just long enough to admit Room Service.

I get colds a lot. My daughter brings them home from school to visit, and when they see my lungs they move in for the winter. And who can blame them? I’ve got great lungs. All the years I smoked cigarettes, I never caught colds, go figure. There’s a message in that, or maybe not. Maybe I just never caught cold when I was young and had no kid, but time has corrected both of those things.

It’s nice to be awake for a few minutes, listening to the inane chatter that passes for my consciousness and sharing it with you. Thank you for reading. And thank you, Chicago, for your marathon winds. I thought New York was a tough town. New York ain’t nothing to this.

1,000 nerds

THE MODERN SOCIAL WEB is a miracle of progress but also a status-driven guilt-spewing shit volcano. Back in the 1990s—this will sound insane—we paid a lot of money for our tilde accounts, like $30 or $40 a month or sometimes much more. We paid to reach strangers with our weird ideas. Whereas now, as everyone understands, brands pay to know users.

via Tilde.Club: I had a couple drinks and woke up with 1,000 nerds — The Message — Medium.

Dead Pixel Society

Editing icons 1990s style in ResEdit

FANS OF ICON ART and The Big Web Show, listen up. Tomorrow’s Big Web Show guest is Justin Dauer (AKA @pseudoroom) of The Dead Pixel Society. Justin was a web icon artist in the mid-1990s, back when I also dabbled in the art. Indeed, it was talented folks like Justin and my friends at The Iconfactory who made me realize that specializing in icons was probably not going to be a thing for me, as they were so much better at it.

Ah, for the days when a pixel was a pixel!

To celebrate those times and that body of work, Justin has gathered together some of the best of those 1990s icon artists at The Dead Pixel Society. Its mission: to “honor the humble pixel with desktop icon creations we would’ve designed the past 18 years, via 1996 ResEdit-esque constraints.” The site, although it has not yet officially launched, is now available in preview.

I loved those days of the early web, when progressive enhancement meant making sure it worked in 16 colors as well as 216. So I’m quite excited about my upcoming conversation with Justin. You can listen in to the live taping tomorrow, Thursday October 2nd, from 10:00AM–11:100AM EDT on 5by5.tv. The final, edited show will be posted a few hours later at 5by5.tv/bigwebshow; you can also subscribe via iTunes and/or RSS. Here’s looking at you, pixel!

On Design Conferences

A GOOD CONFERENCE is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative.

To me, the ideal conference offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days. The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published.

Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the sequence in which they are heard should have an inevitability to it, like the song sequence on your favorite albums. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A trained ape can invite the same speakers who speak everywhere else. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas.

To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it. It takes sensitivity and experience to choose just the right speakers, on just the right topics, and to arrange their presentations across time for maximum educational and strategic benefit.

If I do say so myself, cough cough.


With thanks to my friend Louis Rosenfeld, who has asked a number of conference founders to share their thoughts on the subject. Watch this space for links to a polished conglomeration of all they had to say, coming soon.

Thanks also to Jim Heid, who ran Web Design World back in them days. And to Eric, Marci, Toby, and Stephen, eternally.

Web design news and insights since 1995