Barbie and Gender Bias Language in Tech

barbie3Mattel recently faced a barrage of criticism after a blogger excoriated them for the story and language of the book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. The book, in Barbie’s “I Can Be…” series and published in 2010, has now been discontinued. But it continues to provide an interesting look at how, while some comments and word choices may seem benign individually, when combined to represent the language of a culture, it can be seen more clearly as a subtle yet endemic problem.

Putting aside the narrative—Barbie essentially breaks her sister Skipper’s computer, then has some male friends fix it while she enjoys the credit—it is disappointing that the language used was not more carefully vetted by Mattel. Blogger and IT professional Karen Lopez provided an excellent “refactoring” of the text of the book:

In the page shown above, when Skipper asks if she can play the video game Barbie is working on, Barbie says:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.”

This not only demeans the designer’s vital role in game creation, but makes Barbie sound less than competent. Lopez rewrites the line:

“Not yet,” explains Barbie. “I need to finish the design, then work with Steven and Brian to turn it into a game.”

The meaning of both versions is largely the same, but the belittling terms “only,” “need” and “help” have been removed or replaced. And rather than “laughing” at Skipper’s assumption that her game might actually be functional, she instead “explains” that design is one part of many in the process of game creation.

If you’ve read through the original Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, whether on Pamela Ribon’s site or elsewhere, Casey Fiesler‘s “remix” of the book (reposted here on Slate) is a refreshing follow-up read. (Computing PhD candidate Fiesler is on the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works, making her remix of particular interest in regard to modern issues of copyright law. To quote from her blog, “One of my favorite things about remix: If you don’t like the narrative, change it!”)

Barbie has issued an apology on Facebook, the book’s author has commented on the controversy, and Mattel has removed the book from online distribution venues. Regardless, the internet has continued to have fun creating alternate versions of it. You can even make your own!

revised Barbie pageWhile Barbie has been no stranger to feminist debate over her long life (remember “math is hard“?) many people have been surprised at the quality and entertainment value of some other recent Barbie-related media, such as the 2009 DVD Musketeer in Pink (Barbie is D’Artagnan!) and the not-awful short video seriesBarbie Life in the Dreamhouse,” now in its fifth season.


Twitter and the Heartbreak of PowerPoint

mission statement slideIt’s hard to even know where to start. This PowerPoint slide “explaining” Twitter’s new strategy statement is amazingly incoherent. What does the Venn diagram mean? What is the difference between the company’s scope and their competitive advantages? And what could “objective” possibly mean here? How is “be[ing] one of the top revenue generating  companies in the world” a strategy? Could they fit the word “world” in one more time? Dennis K. Berman of the Wall Street Journal points out via Twitter itself that the slide includes “35 words, 62 syllables, 4 clauses, [and] 2 grammatical errors.” (He also retweeted a sentence diagram of it.)

But others have written more detailed reviews of this remarkable sentence. The Washington Post, The Harvard Business Review, and Valleywag have all covered it.

Fun Idioms from NBC’s Constantine

Constantine TV bannerThe title character of NBC’s new show Constantine is meant to be a Liverpool-raised Londoner living in Atlanta, Georgia. Accordingly, the show uses a lot of British (and sometimes Southern American) idiomatic expressions. Here are some of my recent favorites.

The duck’s nuts“—cf. “the dog’s bollocks,” the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas.”
Gaz: “Back then we all thought John was the duck’s nuts.”

Taking the piss“—once largely unknown in the US, the expression “are you taking the piss?” usually means “are you kidding me?” This usage is gaining stateside traction.
Gaz: “I’m coming with you.”
John: “Are you taking the piss?
Gaz: “It’s my responsibility.”
John: “Forget it. You’re the last person I want by my side in this—or anything.”

Bitta” —a person who is a bit of this, a bit of that—a “bitta” everything.
John: “You’re showing flashes of precognition, retrocognition, clairtangence—you’re a real Bitta.”

Rocket surgery“—a combination of  “rocket science” and “brain surgery.” “It’s not rocket surgery” means “it’s not difficult.”

Pear-shaped“—”Everything went all pear-shaped” in British parlance means “everything went horribly wrong.”

Leave it out“—an equivalent to “I don’t want to hear it.”
Gaz: “I’m clean now, John, and it’s going to stay that way; I swear.”
John: “Oh, leave it out, Gaz; I don’t have the time.”

Read my recaps of the show at The Supernatural Fox Sisters.


Quick Link: Why Academics’ Writing Stinks

academicwritingBad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

Steven Pinker: Why Academics’ Writing Stinks
The Chronicle ReviewThe Chronicle of Higher Education

The Sequence of Cumulative Adjectives

Cumulative (aka attributive) adjectives, unlike coordinate (aka correlative) adjectives, do not require commas between them when placed before their object in a sentence. While coordinate adjectives are sequentially interchangeable, there is a standard order to cumulative adjectives that most native English speakers understand intuitively without necessarily realizing it:

  1. Articles, possessives, and demonstrativesthe, her, those
  2. Time indicators: last, primary, next
  3. Words indicating amount, or counting words: twelve, few, extra
  4. Evaluating words: tiresome, pretty, difficult
  5. Words describing size: enormous, high, small
  6. Words describing shape: square, flat, oblong
  7. Words describing a condition: clean, cold, melted
  8. Age indicators: old, ancient, young
  9. Colors: green, pink, black
  10. Nationality or geographical region: American, Scandinavian
  11. Religion: Christian, Islamic, Hindu
  12. Material or composition: brick-and-mortar, silk, clay
  13. Words that are usually nouns used as adjectives: steak knife, junk drawer

See this Oxford University Press quiz for examples following this pattern. Example #7 is properly reordered to A strange small square metal box. (1+4+5+6+12+noun.) A recent article at Slate discusses the semantic development of the conventional sequence of cumulative adjectives in English (although their list is not as long nor specific as the one above).

Witch-burner & Bible-botherer James I of England

Witch-burner/Bible-botherer James I of England & Ireland/James IV of Scotland. After Paul van Somer, c. 1630.

One of the useful aspects of this sequence is the ability to change meaning, feeling or emphasis by putting cumulative adjectives in non-standard order, often for purposes of poetic allusion. Consider this line from the King James Bible:
[…] after the fire a still small voice.
Still (meaning ‘unmoving’) = #7, a condition; small = #5, size. The conventional order is reversed. See various other translations of the same verse: a voice, a soft whisper; the sound of a low whisper; a quiet, whispering voice; a sound of a gentle blowing. One can imagine King James VI and I’s scholars choosing this translation for poetic, rather than doctrinal, reasons.

(There are also such things as non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, which slot in between numbers 1 & 2 above, and which will be covered in a future post.)

h/t Vici Casana, M.A. of UC Berkeley Extension & We had a deal, Kyle@MeFi.


Negation as Implicature

the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area never really existed, and was in no way a multimillion-dollar failure of municipal planning.

All Things Linguistic examines the use of negation in the storytelling of the fantastic and fantastical podcast Welcome to Night ValeWhere even “Not” isn’t as it seems.

Night Vale often uses negation as an implicature, similarly to use by government agencies of the Glomar response: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the faceless old woman who lives in your home.” Listen to Radiolab‘s podcast episode on a Cold War use of the Glomar response here.

Older than you think—Not! Adding “not” at the very end of a sentence as a form of negation is not a new construction. An early OED citation is from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which she writes:

She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.

(More words and usages that are older than you think at this listicle at the Guardian UK.)

h/t Lexica @Metafilter

Gender Terminology, Old and New

Knowing the etymology and social history of words can be helpful in determining and remembering preferred forms. To that end, here is a very basic primer on some gender-related terminology:

Mona Kennedy

Princess Kennedy as Mona. Photo and edit: Chad Kirkland. Illustration: Paul Frame. From

Transgender: An adjective, as in transgender person. Not transgenders, as if a noun, nor transgendered, as if a verb—the -ed suffix comes with the implication that it is something that has happened or been done to someone, rather than a natural state, and is therefore not used. The difference is similar to that of  person of color (n. + pp. acting as adj.) vs. colored (adj.)/coloreds (pl. n.), although those two terms have different meanings (people of color is inclusive of colored people, but not the reverse).

Cisgender: The opposite of transgender, cisgender people’s gender identities and the physical sexual characteristics they were born with are the same.  The prefixes trans- and cis- are from Latin, and are used in the field of chemistry to describe molecular structure. The Latin trans means “across,” and cis means “on this side of”; as opposites they mean “on the same side” and “on the other side.” Cisgender woman or cis woman (a person who both identifies as, and was born with the sexual characteristics of, a female) is a term used in contrast to transgender woman or trans woman (a person who identifies as female but was born with the sexual characteristics of a male). In general usage (that is, when not specifically discussing gender issues), cis women and trans women are properly referred to as simply women. (Note that while transgender is spelled as one word, trans man and trans woman are not.)

Agender: Distinct from bigender or androgynous (meaning “both male and female”: bi- = “two”, andro- = “man”, -gynous = “having female parts”), agender (a- = “without”) is synonymous with genderless, or neutrois. Agender people sometimes use different pronouns, such as xe, thon, and hir, or may prefer the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some pronoun forms, such as he-she or shim, are usually considered derogatory and best avoided. The correct choice is always determined by the preference of the individual in question.

Trans*: The asterisk here is meant as a sort of wildcard, making trans* an umbrella term for the spectrum of non-conforming gender identities and expression: transgender, transsexual,  agender, gender-fluid, non-binary, etc.—more colloquially, genderqueer people. Its popular use has been recently increasing in discourse on gender issues. It is basically an inclusive abbreviation.

Intersex: Mentioned here as it is important to not conflate the term intersex with those above. Intersex people have hormonal, genetic, or anatomical variations that cause physical sexual ambiguity. The term is biological rather than related to sexual orientation or gender expression, and is therefore not synonymous with transgender or pansexual.

Words to avoid:

Transsexual (or Transexual): A term used in the fields of medicine and psychology in the mid-twentieth century, before it was widely understood that sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct. it is not useful as an umbrella term synonymous with transgender—not all transgender people are transsexual. It also doesn’t fit well with our more clearly defined and understood common terminology for sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, etc.). This ambiguity, along with the availability of more precise and correct terminology, makes transsexual largely obsolete.

Transvestite: the Latin vestire means “clothe,” so transvestite translates directly to “cross-dresser,” the preferred term. Transvestism can be a form of gender expression, but is not related to sexual orientation, and is not used to refer to transgender people—our traditional understanding of transvestite frequently, if not usually, has referred to cisgender, heterosexual men. The term cross-dresser means the same thing, but is clearer and not as easily confused with other sex- and gender-related terms.

Tranny, Trannie, Shemale, etc. We San Franciscans may have always thought of “tranny” as simply a word for a person who dresses in drag (as in the name of long-running local club Trannyshack), but “tranny” (and other words like it) are more often used as derogative terms for transgender people in the wider world. For this reason, the terms have fallen out of favor.

Cal’s Gender Equity Resource Center has a useful glossary of terms. Also see GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.

Pleonastic Tautological Redundancies

See what I did there? Here are some common, yet often overlooked, examples of grammatical tautologies.

ATM machine sign

Sign at McBaker Market, San Francisco

heir apparent
end result
general public
doctorate degree
undergraduate student
root cause
old adage
major breakthrough
close proximity
final outcome

There are lots of tautological proper nouns, like the Los Angeles Angels (The the angels angels: Spanish) or Lake Tahoe (Lake the Lake: Washo). But they just are what they are.

Pleonasm can be syntactic or semantic.
Semantic pleonasm occurs when the grammar of a language allows for a word or words to be be left out of a sentence without changing the meaning. “That” is a commonly semantically pleonastic word in English:
I thought that you had read it” can be replaced by “I thought you had read it.”
Syntactic pleonasm is what we more commonly call a redundancy, such as this one taken from a popular book:
What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.