Architecture Is Tough! Will Architect Barbie Help More Women Become Designers?
Each year Americans make a very important decision that affects the future of our country. They choose the next career of a certain plastic icon.
As part of the Barbie "I Can Be..." series, several vocations for the doll are suggested to the public, and Mattel asks us to choose which of these wide-ranging careers are most important for girls to emulate. Last year Architect was in the running—alongside Computer Engineer, News Anchor, and Environmentalist—sparking a wave of design-centric support. Architect didn't win the popular vote as the next doll to be produced, but a year later, Mattel announced at the annual Toy Industry Association Toy Fair that Architect Barbie was indeed in the blueprint phase. Later this summer, you'll finally be able to meet (and purchase) Architect Barbie.
Architects are upset because she's wearing too much color. Also, scale models hardly ever come in pink.
There has been much discussion in the design community over the last week about Barbie's sudden ascension into the ranks. Mostly, about how Mattel got it all wrong. Architizer interviewed the handful of female architects who won the AIA's Young Architect Prize about Barbie. They commented, mostly, about her clothes and accessories. Carrying an outdated document tube! Wearing high-heeled boots on a construction site!
I'm not really as concerned about all that—first of all, she's a doll; second, her feet are molded into that permanent tippy-toe, she can only wear heels, people. But I'm honestly interested in the real impact that this doll could have on how many women enter the design field.
You may remember a piece that I wrote last year, "Where My Ladies At?" In it, I uncovered some interesting statistics about the industrial design field. Even though, anecdotally, women make up about half of design students, when it comes to practicing industrial designers, the number of women drops to about 10 to 15 percent. It's slightly better for architects. There's a statement about Architect Barbie at the site of the American Institute of Architects which notes that only 17 percent of their ranks are female.
Did "I Can Be... Barbie Art Teacher" inspire a wave of design educators? What about "I Can Be... Barbie Pet Sitter"?
Can a doll, especially one as iconic as Barbie, sell young girls on a future career? Mattel thinks so: "Barbie inspires girls to try on different careers, encouraging them to play out their dreams and explore the world and all of its possibilities without ever having to leave home," Mattel spokesperson Michelle Chidoni told the AIA. "We believe role-playing with Barbie leads to real life opportunities, and are very proud to introduce I Can Be...Architect Barbie as our 2011 career of the year."
The two female architects who consulted with Mattel to make Architect Barbie a reality also think she can inspire the next generation of designers. In fact, that's why they launched a ten-year campaign to get Mattel to listen to them.
In 2002, Architect was also on the "I Can Be..." ballot, and from the beginning, University of Buffalo professor Despina Stratigakos, who has devoted a career to studying gender and design, saw the power to raise the profile of female architects. "Barbie is a cultural icon with the power to provoke conversations," she tells me. "We could imagine a conversation at the toy store between a girl and her parents about the roles of women in society today. But we also hope the doll will prompt those in the profession to reflect on issues of identity and image, particularly with regard to exclusions."
Ten years ago, the American public did pick Architect (over Librarian, even!) but Mattel never announced the doll. So Stratigakos mounted an exhibition in 2007 at the University of Michigan where she asked designers and artists to create their own vision of what the doll might look like. The Architect Barbie exhibition even featured a pregnant, "glass ceiling" Barbie.