Race, disability, and representation among American Girls

Earlier this month I visited the American Girl store along with The Daughter and a friend who’d been enthusiastically contemplating the trip since The Daughter was born (and quite possibly before then).

A bit of background, for those of you who are a) unfamiliar with the American Girl machine and b) disinclined to visit their website to get a sense of the juggernaut. There are four general flavors of American Girl dolls. The longest running and, I believe, best known is the Historical Dolls line. These named dolls have period-specific clothing and book series detailing their stories; there are also a couple “friend” dolls who don’t seem to have independent backstories (but do have outfits and accessories). Every so often historical dolls are retired (which the website refers to as “archiving,” but I’m not particularly inclined to rant about the fact that discontinuing a product is so not “archiving” it) and new ones cycle in. There are Bitty Babies, for the three to eight crowd. There are My American Girls, unnamed customizable models. And there are the Dolls of the Year, limited edition named dolls with extensive backstories and marketing. And there are, of course, a slew of accessories, assistive devices, furniture, pets, and clothes (doll and kid sized) to encourage young girls to embrace consumerism.

This actually isn’t going to turn into a rant about $100+ dolls and dresses that are more expensive than any item of clothing The Daughter wears herself, because that’s really an argument that makes itself. Nor is it going to turn into a rant about training girls to perform femininity, because even if take-your-doll-to-tea is coded as girly-girl out the wazoo, there is a) nothing wrong with being a girly-girl and b) nothing cuter than your toddler helping her doll drink from a doll-sized tea cup. No, instead I will talk about the things which impressed me, and the things which could impress me even more.

The Dolls of the Year appear to have the full weight of American Girl marketing behind them. (In addition to the upcoming movie,* wide range of clothing and accessories, and many pages in the catalog, a sign advised customers that only three McKennas could be purchased at one time.) They trend very white, but there are a couple exceptions.

The Bitty Babies and My American Girl dolls come with a range of skin tones, hair styles, and eye colors. If your kid wants a doll who looks like her, a close match can be found. (Stress the “close.” The color choices don’t run the gamut, and the facial features all seem approximately the same. But still, a much wider selection than is standard.) The desirability of matching as a default is another issue. Perusing the current catalog, there are only three obvious instances of a mismatch: an East Asian girl and a black doll, Cécile, and white girls with Josefina and Kaya. In general, I approve of the example, both the mismatches and the fact that the dolls were not blue-eyed blondes. Overall, particularly for the non-historical dolls, the marketing schtick is one of dolls who look like (and frequently dress like) the girls who own them.

But I really have to hand it to the company on the accessory front. Your doll can have pierced ears. Your doll can wear glasses. Your doll can wear orthodontic headgear. Your doll can wear a cast. Your doll can wear a hearing aid. Your doll can have a service dog. Your doll can use a wheelchair. Your doll can be hairless. That’s…really pretty impressively inclusive. My cynical side is, of course, tallying up the prices of those accessories and body modifications. But the part of me that is pleased The Daughter can find a doll who looks like her is really taken with the idea that, if she was visually- or hearing- or mobility-impaired or getting chemo treatments, she could still find a doll who looked like her.

Among the historical dolls, I was pleased to see Cécile (and not merely because she was the doll The Daughter ended up selecting), whose backstory identifies her as a free girl of color in 1850s New Orleans. While I think it is (hopefully obviously) important to acknowledge the significant role that slavery played in American history, I also think it’s a good thing that ex-slave Addy is not the only black historical doll. Black-people-used-to-be-slaves-but-we-know-better-now is a terribly reductive (and outright harmful) narrative; anything that complicates it is a good thing. The cross-racial friendship of Cécile and fellow doll Marie-Grace isn’t a bad thing (particularly as it flips class assumptions on their head), but to my mind the existence of Cécile is the most important part.

The twentieth century dolls are a very white bunch. Looking at the historical dolls, I was reminded of some of the preservation issues that came up in Managing History, how a more comfortably distant past could become the focus of nostalgia, leapfrogging over more recent neighborhood realities (e.g. the demographic shifts caused by the Great Migration or the influx of immigrants from Asia). By keeping the twentieth century predominately white,§ a lot of interesting and complicated issues are ignored. I longed to see a girl who participated in civil rights marches, or an Afroed friend for Julie.

A bigger problem than the lack of twentieth century black stories is the near-total absence of Asians. How about a Cambodian refugee living in the Rust Belt or a Chinese immigrant living in nineteenth century San Francisco—or (gasp) an ABC? Josefina and Kaya are an encouraging sign that the historical line does not treat race as a simple white or black binary. But again, they sidestep the twentieth century experiences of Latinas and Native Americans, and each doll is currently a token.

I actually have my fingers crossed for a bigger historical line and increased racial diversity. They seem to roll out new dolls every couple years, but retire them at a much slower rate (and, thusfar, have only retired white historical dolls). Cécile’s 2011 vintage, and I suspect (hope?) that her pairing with Marie-Grace has more to do with marketing (two dolls for the price of 1.95!) than a need to balance a new black doll with a new white one. The historical dolls all appear to be able-bodied. (Only one, Molly, even wears glasses.) I suspect that’s much less likely to change than the racial makeup of the line, which is a shame. It’s nice that girls who use assistive devices can find dolls whose needs match their own…but how much neater if those girls could also find a historical doll, complete with period clothes and backstory, with similar needs? And how much neater if that doll was chosen by girls who didn’t need an assistive device?

* While I had been vaguely aware of the Kit Kitridge movie as a brand tie-in, I hadn’t known the movies had been such a long-running and apparently well-integrated thing.

I’m defaulting to the feminine but conceding (and applauding, though not discussing at length) all the little boys who like dolls, the color pink, dressing up like princesses, and otherwise confounding gendered expectations.

I am personally in the camp of wanting to make sure that The Daughter has a racially diverse selection of dolls, but I have no strong opinion about the race of any particular doll. If she finds dolls that look like her attractive and appealing, even if they’re not always the ones she picks, that’s a sign of good self-esteem. If she someday starts only wanting dolls with straight blonde hair and blue eyes…that will be a sad day.

§ A “friend” doll, Ivy, seems to be the sole exception, though I suppose categorizing Jewish Rebecca as “white” is not entirely straightforward.