New American Girl Doll: Positive Change or More of the Same?

By Stephanie Gonzales Guittar, Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz

When we think of dolls, what usually comes to mind is the “classic” blonde, blue-eyed, well-accessorized dolls that occupies a central space in toy stores and in our cultural imaginations. It was this same iconic image that was firmly embedded in the minds of African American children in the 1940s when Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their famous Doll Test and found that Black children preferred “white-skinned” dolls (and attributed more positive qualities to them) than “dark-skinned” dolls.

American Girl is making an effort to diversify their doll collection in their BeForever collection—a group of dolls, books and accessories that represent diverse historical periods and social backgrounds. These dolls and their stories are not just toys; they are intended to be educational (e.g., the National Museum of American History partnered with American Girl to help bring the stories to life).Black American Doll

In February of this year, American Girl unveiled Melody Ellison, a 9 year-old African-American girl living in Detroit during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It’s about time. The BeForever collection consists of 20 dolls, 14 of whom are white. Melody is one of just three African-American dolls in the collection but only one of those (Addy Walker, a 9 year-old girl who escaped slavery) remains in circulation.

There has been public criticism that the only Black girl doll in the collection was an ex-slave, even prompting change.org to petition the company to discontinue it claiming that “It diminishes the cruelty of slavery and instead glorifies it as some sort of adventurous fantasy!” One of our Black female students who owned (and enjoyed) every American Girl doll collection available during her childhood echoed this criticism, suggesting that the portrayal of the life of a freed-slave promoted the idea that “African Americans didn’t have it so bad.”

In many ways, Melody represents a positive change but it remains to be seen (from the books that will be forthcoming) whether racial struggles will be portrayed in a realistic and immediate way in Melody’s story. Melody is portrayed as a middle-class girl who seems removed from the discrimination and violence that was a fact in the lives of African Americans in the 1960s. We do know her story centers on learning about racially-motivated violence in the South but if it’s like many children’s stories of Black Americans, these experiences remain at a safe distance.

Melody has Euro-centric or “white” features, straightened (non-textured) long hair, light-skin, and is dressed in go-go fashion. She resembles what our students refer to as “white dolls painted brown.” It is noteworthy that the Black American Girl doll that had been discontinued, Cecile Rey, fit this mold as well, with her hazel eyes and red highlights in her hair, which was done in ringlets. So while we are pleased to see American Girl providing more racially diverse dolls in their products, they perpetuate the normalization of “white” features and colorism.

Melody’s characteristics are set but her story is not. There’s an opportunity here to highlight the realities of the growing up in the 1960s for children of color and go beyond the all too familiar tale of beauty and femininity. For American Girl, who has sold more than 151 million books since 1986, these stories have the power to shape cultural perceptions of girls and in this case of Melody, people of color. We hope they seize it.

Stephanie Gonzales Guittar, (Ph.D., Sociology, University of Central Florida), is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Valdosta State University. Her research and teaching interests are varied and include the areas of: poverty and homelessness, sociology of reproduction, “princess culture”, and food issues.  

Lori Baker-Sperry, (Ph.D., Sociology, Purdue University), is a Professor of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.  Her research focuses on feminist theory and feminist criminology, with recent scholarship in feminist food studies.  Baker-Sperry teaches numerous Women’s Studies courses, including introductory and advanced feminist theory, women in popular culture, and women and crime.

Liz Grauerholz is Professor of Sociology at University of Central Florida. Her research focuses on gendered representations in media and other cultural artifacts.

 

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