by Anya Josephs
When I was younger, I owned an American Girl doll, like many girls my age. I wasn’t as big a fan as some girls, but I really loved the books that went with each doll. I read all the stories that were in my elementary school’s library, and I still remember the different cultures and periods in history that I was introduced to by these stories of original creative, brave, and dynamic girls.
That’s why I was surprised when my friend Avery Tyson, who is twelve years old and a huge fan of the American Girl series, approached me to ask for support writing a petition to ask American Girl to include more diverse dolls. I remembered American Girl as being one of the only companies that made a real effort to represent girls from all different backgrounds. Not only was the line of historical dolls that was available when I was younger very diverse in terms of race, the dolls all had powerful stories about important periods in American history.
My impression of American Girl was that they were a wonderful organization, and that their dolls were inspiring and diverse, providing representation and empowerment for girls. So at first I was hesitant to get behind Avery’s petition, and I understand why other girls my age and older might think of American Girl as a very progressive company that provides good representation for all kinds of girls.
When I was younger, there was a smaller number of dolls, and they were all “historical,” meaning that they came from different periods of American history and told interesting stories of how girls coped with sometimes very difficult circumstances. Avery’s generation of girls have been offered a very different narrative of what an American Girl is. The dolls are predominantly white, since the new Girl of the Year line features almost exclusively white dolls, and the historical dolls are being retired and replaced, sometimes with less diverse and interesting stories.
Luckily, there are girls who care enough to demand better representation. Melissa Shang, the ten-year-old sister of SPARKteam alum YingYing, has written a petition on change.org asking for the next Girl of the Year to be a doll who has a physical disability, as Melissa does. Her personal and affecting story inspired Avery to finish her own petition, which asks that American Girl choose to feature a girl of color for their next historical doll. You can watch a video of Avery talking about why this is important to her here.
Both of these girls have been brave and eloquent in speaking up for change. They’ve really taken the initiative to change something that is important to them. They aren’t just criticizing American Girl- they are holding them accountable to their own history as an organization that cares about sharing stories that are inspiring and empowering.
This is really wonderful and important work. American Girl is in a unique position among children’s toys, because they aren’t just able to provide visual representation—because of the books that accompany each doll, they can also share stories and traditions from other cultures or periods in history. They are especially able to represent diversity of many kinds because of this format—and not just represent, but also explore.
If American Girl responds to the petitions Avery and Melissa have made, they’ll be able to provide representation for disabled girls and girls of color in a market that’s saturated with dolls that are mostly white, thin, able-bodied, and whose stories seem limited to picking out new clothes. They’ll also, because of the accompanying books, share the stories of what life is like for girls of color and girls with disabilities.
These dolls can be a great way to share the history and diversity of this country with girls. In the past, American Girl has been a role model for other companies by having some of the most diverse dolls available. I hope that they will realize the importance of this history and choose to listen to Avery and Melissa’s concerns.