Meet Olivia. She’s eight years old and she loves architecture.
When she’s not playing with her LEGO (seriously, how great is LEGO?) she’s reading up on her favourite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. She also likes reading Dwell Magazine… an architecture journal. (Sheesh girl! What a little legend.)
But just the other day, Olivia opened up her favourite magazine and something caught her eye that she REALLY didn’t like.
Dwell was running a piece on the new Architect Barbie. The magazine was praising Barbie’s manufacturer Mattel for providing a much-needed representation of female architects (who only number 17% of their profession in the US.) But Olivia knew that this wasn’t how she and her friends played with their toys. She wrote in a letter to the editor telling them so.
In other words, Olivia called bullshit.
I really like reading the Dwell magazines, and I have a comment about the article “Girl Talk” (July/August 2012.)
If you’re going to send a girl an architect Barbie, then you should send something about architecture with it so that she knows what that doll means. Otherwise, she might use that Barbie for a different purpose, like putting its clothes on a different Barbie doll and forgetting about it.
You could send LEGO blocks, or a book, like ‘You Can Be a Woman Architect’ (Cascade Pass 1992) or Architecto, a game where you have to figure out what blocks are used to make the models on the cards. Also, you could send the girl a link to the Frank Lloyd Wright Architect Studio 3D, so she could build a house in 3-D.
I myself like architecture books and books about Frank Lloyd Wright, but that might not encourage other girls because, after all, Frank Lloyd Wright was a man.
I also like to build with wooden blocks, LEGOs, pillows, chairs and blankets.
Olivia Steger, eight years old”
For my first birthday I received a Thomas the Tank Engine ride-on toy. My grandma was adamant that it would be the first in a long line of perfectly practical, completely unisex toys that her first grandchild would play with. And when her behaviour was questioned, she turned to my uncle and said: “Girls do drive, you know.”
Unfortunately, at subsequent birthdays I received a doll shopping trolley. And a doll pram. And a doll stroller (so different.) While the ‘boy toys,’ ‘unisex toys’ or even just the ‘toys that don’t wear a pink, sparkly tutu’ did occasionally appear in the toybox my sisters and I shared, Thomas didn’t stand a chance.
My ride-on Thomas was really just tokenism. Toy Tokenism. Like the funny homosexual sidekick in a teen drama or the random African person in a BBC medieval drama (don’t even get me started on the cast of Merlin) – my Thomas created the illusion of a well-rounded child, completely unaffected by gender implications or expectations.
Olivia clearly realises how quickly a Tank Engine can become a walk-in wardrobe if left all alone in a toybox filled with frills and glitter. She knows tokenism when she sees it and she knows that a strong female role model is only part of the solution for the lack of women in her chosen profession.
(And, most impressively, she knows how to be taken seriously when writing a formal letter by signing off with ‘sincerely’ and even using Harvard-style in-text referencing. Booyaa.)
It really makes you hope that one day, little girls who dream of being architects will be reading books about Olivia Steger.
Mary is an intern at Mamamia, and a first year Media and Communications student from Sydney. She can do the splits, wiggle her ears and tell you who won Eurovision in 1973. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Do you buy gender-specific toys for your kids? When you were a child, what were your favourite toys and games?