American Girl: Representation Matters
I missed out on American Girl dolls, and somehow my daughter did, too. But for many women and girls in the US, they were and continue to be a big part of growing up. Their historical character dolls offer a glimpse into the lives of girls who lived through different times and also encourage a love of reading (each comes with a book detailing her adventures). Some characters get “sidekicks,” and each year American Girl releases a “Girl of the Year” doll. That’s a lot of opportunities to give little girls a chance to see themselves represented among other American Girls.
But the overwhelming majority of historical character, sidekick, and “Girl of the Year” dolls have one thing in common: they are white and able-bodied.
The line of My American Girl dolls, which lets girls order “dolls that look like me,” offers three skin tone choices: light, medium, and dark. There are nearly forty “My American Girl” models on offer to real American girls, but a look at the site reveals that girls who don’t have “light skin” get far fewer choices.
That’s twenty-eight eye color, hairstyle, and hair color combination choices for little white girls, including dolls with freckles, so if you’re a little white girl, you’ll have no trouble finding a doll that looks a lot like you. Little dark-skinned girls choose from four dolls (aka hairstyles). Little girls with “medium skin” have a few more choices when it comes to hair and eye combos, though all but one of these dolls uses the same face mold as the “light skin” dolls. No freckles for brown and black girls. And no “dolls that look like you” for little Asian girls. In other words, not much diversity happening here.
While you might conclude (as I did) from looking at the choices for these dolls that American Girl made only two molds and that was that, you’d be wrong (as I was). But I know way more about this than I did when I woke up this morning thanks to Sarah Hannah Gómez (more on why in a moment) and now I can tell you that there are apparently a total of seven face molds, most of which have been retired. The mold used in the “dark skin” dolls is known as the Addy Mold. There’s the mold created for Sonali (from the Girls of the Year graphic above). There’s the Asian Mold and one called the Jess Mold. The point is, it would be a simple thing for this company to do a better job representing the diversity of actual American girls.
“Have you looked around at the America you live in?” asks Sarah Hannah Gómez in her new petition on Change.org. “At the girls who were your first customers? 43% of us are nonwhite. And as for your current generation of customers? Of the approximately 22 million United States citizens under the age of 19, around 36% are nonwhite. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2042, whites will be the minority.”
This is not the first time women and girls have called on American Girl to do better. Sisters Eva and Melissa Shang created a petition that netted nearly 150 thousand signatures—and a fair amount of press—asking American Girl to consider a disabled Girl of the Year. The company’s response was fairly dismissive:
“We appreciate the enthusiasm and trust our fans have in us to create products and stories that speak to diversity and inclusion, and we applaud Melissa Shang for her amazing spirit and positive attitude … We receive hundreds of passionate requests to create a variety of dolls and books based on a wide range of circumstances, and we are always considering new ways to enhance our product lines.”
So, no plans for the Girl of the Year to represent a disabled child anytime soon. (Positive side-note: You can special-order a My American Girl doll with a hearing aid, and AG-sized wheelchairs are available.)
Sarah Hanna Gómez’ petition goes on to explain to American Girl how their lack of diversity makes an experience that should be happy—sharing something she loved as a child with a new generation of girls—into a painful one, instead:
You made us who we are. You made us readers; you taught us to delve into history; you gave us toys that encouraged imaginative and creative play.
But more important: we made you. It is because of our love for you that your brand still stands strong today.
Now, as adults, we have the chance to share American Girl with our younger sisters, nieces, and daughters. But much as we love nostalgia, there’s something that hurts us when we try to delve into it. You keep misunderstanding your own name – American Girl – and erasing us from the story of America.
Are you listening, American Girl? Because this is a key message companies like yours need to hear: lack of representation equals erasure. When you represent “American Girls” as primarily white and able-bodied, you participate in a system that a) treats people with those qualities as “normal” and thus b) devalues and dehumanizes those who don’t have those qualities and c) fails to tell their stories, erasing them from the narrative. As Eva Shang said,
“What makes girls love American Girl is that it’s not just a doll. It comes with a story. It’s compelling to Melissa because her own story is so unique. So what we are really campaigning for is that her story be told.”
And Sarah Hannah Gómez points out that there are two important sides to the representation coin—mirrors that let us see ourselves and windows into the lives of others:
Without mirrors and windows, white, able bodied, Christian children grow up thinking that they are the norm from which everyone else deviates. Without mirrors and windows, children of color, children with disabilities, or children of different religious backgrounds grow up thinking that they are less than, that they are other, that they are strange.
I highly recommend reading her beautifully written petition in full and, of course, signing and sharing it so that this company gets the message that they must do better when it comes to representing real American girls. (You can follow Sarah Hannah Gómez on Twitter, and be sure to check out her blog.)
Bottom line: If you’re going to call yourself “American Girl” in 2015, you need to make it a priority to represent the wide range of girls who live in this Great American Melting Pot. Do better, AG, or expect to keep hearing from us.
Update: Soon after publishing this, I tweeted about it, tagging American Girl. Here’s what they had to say:
Well, that doesn’t answer the question, which was “Why are nearly all the Girl of the Year dolls white?” But since I didn’t actually expect an answer to that question (or any answer at all, truth be told), I’ll address the statement above. AG responded within an hour (and from a corporate account on a Saturday!) so I’m assuming they had this one canned and ready. This tells me they have to address this topic from time to time, so you’d think they’d do a better job of it. I mean, if the best you can claim is “one of the most diverse and inclusive” then obviously you can do better in this area, so why not at least go with the “we’re always considering ways to enhance” line they gave the Shangs? But to me it sounds like AG is pretty satisfied with the status quo, so no, they probably aren’t actually looking for ways to improve—just ways to respond to critics that get them to go away.
Update 2 (1/5/15): A live Twitter chat is beginning now (11:30 am Pacific time) on the hashtag #.
Note: As is often the case, I have made some post-publication edits for clarity.
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