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American Girl Doll of the Year Backlash

American Girl

(Christmas 2012)

I’ve long been a fan of American Girl dolls. Back when I first started purchasing them, they were beautifully made with incredible attention to detail. Thumbing through the catalog, I marveled at all of the beautiful outfits and accessories for each of the dolls.

At that time the historical dolls were all of the rage. Each having their own story which educated kids not only on the time period the doll was from, but also life lessons which taught character and empathy. I loved the positive message that tied together history and play all in one package, albeit a pricey one.

The very first American Girl doll I purchased was Molly McIntire (since retired). I bought her about six weeks after my baby Nina passed away. I know that sounds horribly morbid, but the reason I did that was because in my mind that doll resembled what my daughter might’ve looked like if she had the chance to grow up.

It also gave me a bit of hope that someday that doll would be played with by a future daughter. A doll in waiting, if you will.

And as fate would have it, I was blessed with not one but two daughters who would grow to love that doll Molly and half the other dolls in the catalog. Much to the chagrin of my bank account.

But I have to tell you, years ago I thought that was money well spent. The dolls were made so very well and I did appreciate what they stood for. And the hours of peace I got from that purchase when the girls would change their doll’s clothes or hairstyle twenty plus times a day made those dolls well worth the cost.

Then in 1995 things started to change. That year American Girl announced American Girl of Today (now My American Girl) which was a step away from the historical dolls. This new line allowed kids to choose a doll that better represented themselves, allowing them to select the skin color, eye color, face shape and hair style.

And while I thought that that wasn’t entirely a bad thing, I was sort of sad that these new dolls didn’t have a historical backstory. It felt like things were changing and I wasn’t certain it was for the better.

In 2001 American Girl launched a new limited edition line called Girl of the Year. Special dolls that would come out on January 1st and be retired on December 31st of that same year.

And as a collector of AG dolls, I was curious to see what would qualify as Girl of the Year. I had hoped that this new line would be a way to foster more diversity into the product line. A better representation of our country’s population. Dolls that all kids could relate to no matter what their skin color.

In total there have been twelve Girl of the Year dolls. Out of the twelve, nine are decidedly white, one Hawaiian, one Latina (sort of, not convincing at all) and one Japanese/Scottish/Irish (why they couldn’t commit to an entirely Japanese doll is beyond my comprehension).

I find this rather troubling. And apparently there are many other people who feel the same way because on January 1st when the newest doll of the year Isabelle, another very white and blonde doll, was announced as Girl of the Year many of us were scratching our heads and saying what’s up with American Girl? What are they trying to say? If you visit the American Girl Facebook page, you can see some of this discussion.

So this has got me to thinking…

Is American Girl trying to tell us that the only girl of the year worth celebrating is caucasian? It would certainly appear that way based on the fact that nine of the twelve Girls of the Year are white.

Certainly they know that a darker skinned doll would sell based on the Hawaiian doll Kanani. She was wildly popular. So popular that she sold out before I had the chance to buy her for my daughter.

Do they think that white people won’t purchase an African American, Indian, Latina, (a real one, not a watered down palatable version of one for God’s sake) Chinese (ya think sales would pick up a bit for that one? Have you seen the size of the population of China?) or other ethnicity?

Speaking as a very white woman, I’m here to tell American Girl that not only would I buy ANY of the dolls I just proposed, but I would PREFER that for my children. I WANT my kids to learn about other cultures. I NEED my kids to get that this world consists of many different people and cultures that are worth learning about. Celebrating even.

I also think the Girl of the Year needs to be more of a statement. Something special. Something that all girls can relate to. Not just white ones.

I thank God that our world does not have nine white people out of every twelve because good grief how boring that would be.

Let’s talk bottom line. Sales. Leela’s birthday was January 1st. She waited to see the Girl of the Year with the hopes that it would be her birthday present. (her grandparents and I were all going to buy it for her together) And her reaction when she saw it? I already have her. Her name is Julie. It’s the same doll.

Don’t forget that my daughter is a blonde blue-eyed child and even SHE wanted a more diverse doll.

I hope that American Girl learns something from this year’s hoopla over Isabelle. And before you go thinking that I’ve lost it getting upset over a doll, keep this in mind…

Manufacturers (and the media) are telling our girls what’s beautiful and what’s not. They are telling them what’s special and worth celebrating. This is not a simple matter of a child’s plaything. It’s the forming of our children’s minds and self esteem.

And I for one want my children to know that all people are worth celebrating. The ones with almond shaped eyes, those with kinky curly hair, the ones in wheelchairs, the dark skinned ones and yes, even the caucasians. Because there’s beauty in every single person regardless of the color of their skin or their facial characteristics or their physical abilities.

I truly hope that American Girl reflects on that this coming year and that they bring to market a unique and diverse doll for the Girl of the Year 2015. That’s something I’ll happily shell out cash for.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    My Dear Melanie. What a controversy and all completely avoidable with an eye tuned toward inclusive and representative selections. I checked out the web site since you provided the link and was amazed that the last three selections all seem more or less the same doll. Thank you for being so honest and direct in bringing this to our attention. I remember the post where you took your young ladies to the American Girl store in Manhattan and how excited they were to have that experience. It seems very strange that any company would be so anti-diverse in this day and age. Very well written post by the way and a good topic to chew on.

  2. I’ve noticed the similaritis in the dolls as well…the face is exactly the same. My older daughters have several of the first dolls, Josefina, Kaya, and Kit, and my youngest has McKenna and Bitty Baby. I loved the historical dolls; that’s what made the company what it was. Money is definitely behind their recent decisions. Before long the Girl of the Year dolls will be just like Barbie.

  3. I actually received an American Doll and it just so happens it was the year they began doing the American Girl of Today – so I received a doll that looked just like I did. While I was grateful to get an American Girl, I distinctly remember being slightly disappointed that I didn’t get Molly or one of the other historical dolls. They seemed so much more interesting to me than one who had no back story. American Girl needs to learn a lesson in diversity and I hope that they’ll begin sooner than later.

  4. Agreed!

  5. I love the historical dolls! I never had one but I did have all of the books for them and loved to read the stories and I think I even had a computer game for them. I loved Molly and Samantha! I lost interest after they started to all look the same.

  6. Amen! I have boys so no need to buy AG dolls but I totally agree with what you wrote. My kids go to a pretty diverse (economically, culturally, religious, ethnicity) school and those dolls sure do not represent the place my kids spend the majority of their time…their school.

  7. Heather M says:

    I had the exact same reaction. I haven’t sought out the FB discussion but I have to say I’m pleased I’m not the only one. My girls have just begun their obsession with AG so it’s still very new to me. Saige is the only girl of the year I have known, but even with such short history I still expected a doll with some color. Hopefully they will take the hint from the backlash and do better next year.

  8. I had a long comment typed out, but opted not to suck up space on your blog with my ramblings. I agree with you completely. It really is a shame that such young girls are already having these narrow ideas of beauty implanted in their minds. As the mother of a little girl whose complexion resembles hot chocolate, I can’t tell you how awful it makes me feel that my daughter doesn’t consider herself beautiful because she doesn’t resemble the dolls in her American Doll catalogs. Our children already have so many obstacles to overcome without adding to it by pressuring them into fitting withing the narrow boundaries of what society considers beauty to be.

  9. My girls are older now, but we only bought the historical dolls. They loved those and the movies that went along with them. There are so many opportunities to just celebrate achievement and diversity that it seems a shame the company is not actively seeking inclusion of all cultures. It is such a great opportunity to teach and learn about the world. Diversity is what makes America great.

  10. Well said!
    I hope they listen!

  11. Amen sister!

    And since we’re on the topic of manufacturers and the media dictating to our children (I have none of my own, but hundreds of high school students instead) what is and isn’t beautiful, can we take a peeky-peek at the Bratz dolls!? Gee-golly-gosh. Can their skirts be any short or their lips any more plump? And people spent years complaining about the disproportionate Barbie doll…. so we get Bratz instead?!
    http://www.bratz.com/en-us/section/catalog/new

    And some people wonder why our youth have such identity issues!

  12. Nadiya Sivin-Kachala says:

    My idea for GOTY 2015: Lena Watanabe doesn’t really get along with her old friends. They like to hang out at the mall and giggle over pop stars. She doesn’t like crowds and would rather hang out at the hospital where her moms are doctors (she also wants to be a doctor someday). After a big fight, she finds new friends who are more in tune with her personality. She was also adopted from Nigeria when she was a baby and that would somehow be part of her story. She would either live in Chelsea (NYC) or live somewhere on Long Island.
    My idea for a historical doll (1918): Lillian “Lilly” Quinn is an average girl living in Hell’s Kitchen (NYC) whose parents are Irish immigrants. Her life ends up changing when World War 1 breaks out and her brother Sam enlists in the Army. Then, the Spanish flu breaks out and her sister Rose becomes a nurse. Her other sister Anna, after victory in New York, goes to Washington D.C. to protest for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, at home, Lilly is finding her hidden courage and her place in the world.

  13. Having worked at AG, a few years ago, I have a little inside information. You have to remember that AG is a company and they are going to make what sells the best. Consistently blonde dolls have much higher sales figures than all the others, with Julie being the biggest moneymaker followed by Kit (this was before Caroline)… They even changed Elizabeth from the original books where she was a brunette to have blonde hair to sell more of her. You make more like products that sell better. Some people say they want more diversity, but in actual buying habits tend to buy dolls that look like them. I think many people (like me too) would buy and enjoy a non white/blonde goty but these are probably collectors who already have a bunch of dolls who are trying to expand and diversify their collection. Many AG consumers in new markets (as they are opening more new stores) are in the market for their first doll and will gravitate toward a white doll if they are white (a large portion of their customers). And I don’t think it’s even fair to say AG is not diversity friendly. You can get hairless dolls for girls going through chemo, dolls with hearing aids, wheelchairs, seeing eye dogs, a variety of skin colors, eye colors, hair types, and historical time periods. All that is not negated just because they don’t have a certain kind of doll as the girl of the year. (And I don’t know why Marisol is not considered Latina enough to you?!)

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it will come, and will buy the next girl of the year regardless of skin color, but if don’t get too caught up in trying to make a company seem like they’re racist or doing something wrong by providing a product that their customers as a whole love. I am secretly hoping for an African American or Asian goty for 2015 though!

  14. Scangelous says:

    All I’m saying is, there happen to be some little girls in the world who were absolutely thrilled with Isabelle’s release. My child is a blonde haired, blue eyed dancer. I raised that kid on ethnically diverse dolls (She’s got about a million black/hispanic looking dolls) and she wants this one more than I can say.
    When did being ethnically diverse mean we can’t have blonde hair/blue eyes?

  15. Juliette says:

    Hi! I really agree with you. Not only do I think they should release a more ethnic doll, I also think they should come up with a different personality or activity. They already had a dancer!! They should have a karate kid, or a firl who loves to play the fiddle, or have a soccer star!! I would also love to see a doll that has Black hair, pale skin, and ACTUALLY LOOKS ASIAN!!!
    PS: I am white!

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