‘Architect Barbie’ co-creators explain impact of ‘Barbie’ movie

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BUFFALO — As Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie continues its momentum, breaking box office records and becoming one of the most talked about movies of the summer, Kelly Hayes McAlonie and Despina Stratigakos are keenly aware of the film’s significance for women everywhere.

As co-creators with Mattel of Architect Barbie, Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning at the University at Buffalo, and Stratigakos, professor of architecture, School of Architecture and Planning at UB, call the movie “brilliant,” and were elated to see their creation on the big screen.

“We were thrilled to discover our doll featured in the opening sequence — it was very exciting indeed,” Hayes McAlonie recalled.

Designing a Barbie as a playful avatar for women in a male-dominated field was an important project for Hayes McAlonie and Stratigakos, who are passionate about expanding gender equity and representation in architecture. Hayes McAlonie authored a biography on Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first professional female architect. Stratigakos wrote “Where Are the Women Architects?” a book that explores the stagnating number of women in a male-dominated field. In 2011, they worked together with Mattel to develop Architect Barbie.

Hayes McAlonie and Stratigakos saw the movie together and talked about Barbie’s significance, both in doll and film forms.

‘A powerful pink bomb’

“I see Barbie as a useful disrupter,” said Stratigakos, a former UB vice provost for inclusive excellence. “Her Barbie-ness can act like a powerful pink bomb, especially where masculine norms are so layered and dense that it is hard to create any space for conversations about change.”

Added Hayes McAlonie: “The Architect Barbie project was a catalyst for a conversation on the status of women and inspired panel discussions throughout the country on the status of women in the profession. This led to important initiatives to increase gender equity in architecture.”

Why Barbie?

“Barbie still has enormous power as a cultural icon,” Stratigakos said. “We wanted to tap into that power to raise awareness about gender equity issues in architecture and, at the same time, deliver a message to little girls: Real architects wear pink!”

“I also saw the doll as a design tool,” Hayes McAlonie said. “We could demonstrate the importance of design in the built environment. We developed design exercises for Architect Barbie workshops, where children designed their own dream house. It was a fun way to show the work of the architect and the value of design.”

“The movie was a good reminder of how far women have advanced in 60 years but also how far we have to go to achieve gender equity in society and certainly in architecture,” Hayes McAlonie said.

Noted Stratigakos: “Barbie taking on the patriarchy was both twisted and satisfying. Greta Gerwig captured the powerful weirdness of it all.”

Stratigakos said the movie is important, “especially the attention it brings to the power of female audiences and feminist directors. I also don’t think we should underestimate humor’s ability to deflate social norms.

“But the patriarchy is not going to be dismantled by a doll, and certainly not by a corporation,” she said. “Perhaps after she visits her gynecologist, Barbie goes to the ballot box.”

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