My American Girl

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

My daughter will turn 10 this month.  In many ways we have tried as much as possible to expose her to as wide a range of peoples and cultures.  We have attempted to encourage a sensitivity and sensibility about racial differences but also human similarities.  She has had many “aunties’ and “uncles” and “cousins” from various ethnic, cultural, and national backgrounds.  We are intentional about where we attend church, where we live, and where we travel and the range of cultures she encounters.  But it turns out, that she still gravitates towards certain preferences when it comes to the type of dolls she wants.  And the doll catalog is absolutely of no help.

For the three months that my daughter was into Barbie dolls, we insisted on buying her a range of different dolls.  So we had the typical blonde Barbie (given to her by one of her school friends), but we also bought her a Brazilian Barbie and a Korean culture Barbie. All of the dolls (except for the Korean cultural Barbie, still in its original box – it’s a collector’s item, she wasn’t allowed to play with it) were given away during our last move.

So now for her 10th birthday, my daughter really wants a My American Girl™ doll©.  (It’s nice that American Girl has been trademarked – so no one else can claim to have ownership and control over who defines an American girl except for American Girl’s parent company, Mattel, which also happens to be the parent company of Barbie).  We’ve been holding her off for the last few years — mainly because those dolls are ridiculously overpriced.  (We even tried to trick her a few years ago with a knock off version – she was polite but very clear that the knock off doll would not suffice).  But for her tenth birthday, her grandparents are chipping in to buy a doll and she’s actually saved up her allowance over the last year to buy a My American Girl™ doll.

So I’m leafing through the My American Girl Doll™ catalog. I’m encouraging my daughter to at least look at the historical dolls.  Being a typical Asian parent I believe that even a doll should come with some required reading.  (And she should also figure out how much the tax is for herself and calculate accordingly).  Just the names tell the story: Molly, Emily, Kit, Felicity. There are no Korean girls named Molly. If there are any Korean girls named Felicity, it’s probably a relatively newborn child whose parents are nostalgic for the WB show starring Keri Russell.

All of the dolls have these ridiculously round eyes.  None of the historical dolls are Asian. (The Asian dolls featured in the catalog don’t look very Asian.  And they all have bangs.  My daughter hates bangs.) The non-white dolls come at the very end of the catalog: Addy (I think she’s a slave girl doll – Really Mattel??  Really?!) and Kaya (a Native American doll).  They come after the catalog has extolled the virtue of Julie (the counter-culture hippie history doll), Emily, a British girl who has escaped London to come to the US (so apparently she’s more American than any Latino or Asian doll could ever be), and white dolls from the two World Wars and the Depression.

So now we’re going to end up with two American Girl dolls. I think my daughter wanted the girl from the Depression. (Because during the depression, all of us were people of color.)  And Kaya, the Native American doll.  Natives and Asians go way back.

I’m very proud of my daughter.  She was asking me why I had her doll catalog on my desk.  I told her that I was writing something for my Racial Identity class.  She said,” You know what doll they really need in that catalog. They need a Japanese Internment doll.  I would buy that doll.”  You go girl!©

  1. Amy says:

    I actually used to work at the company that started the American Girl dolls. It was called The Pleasant Company after its founder Pleasant Rowland. It’s in Middleton, WI and was started by Ms. Rowland because she was not happy with the dolls on the market for her own daughter. She wanted her daughter to know some history and to be involved in creative play. At the time the dolls were amazing. Their accessories were well made and historically accurate. After a time…probably in 1997 or 1998, Ms. Rowland sold her company to Mattel. At the time it seemed scandalous because Mattel was basically the reason she started the company to begin with. Mattel said they would keep her spirit alive…and yet they really haven’t.

    The African American doll Addie was the first non-white doll. She represented history at the time of the slaves. Her books and accessories were supposed to teach little girls what it was like for her at that time. There was also a Mexican American girl named Josafina, a Swedish-American pioneer girl named Kirsten, a Victorian era girl named Samantha…and Felicity is the Colonial American girl while Molly is the WW2 American girl. Later they came out with others as well as the American Girl of today.

    If you look back at the history of the company and what Ms. Rowland set out to do, it was quite a feat and the dolls were a welcome change at the time. At the time I thought selling to Mattel was a big mistake and it seems as if they are just milking the cash cow more than continuing in the educational/creative play Ms. Rowland set out for these dolls to be.

    I just wanted to give you a little history on a company I once enjoyed working for but now seems more intent on making money than teaching historical lessons or spurring on imaginations. Thanks and bless you.

    • profrah says:

      Thanks for the info. Great insights into the whole story and background. Seems a shame what happened to the company. It sounds like the company started with the most noble of intentions and had a great start. It’s unfortuante that it went down a different path once Mattel got a hold of it.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts – my husband and I have been thinking on on this topic for awhile not. There’s not a lot of insight out there…. here are a few other options we’ve looked at –

  3. Jason GL Chu says:

    Professor Rah;

    I view your work with incredible respect and even thanksgiving. The Next Evangelicalism has been instrumental for laying the foundation for much of my thought about ethnicity and the church, not to mention the broader blessing of having a man with your background speaking truth in a gracious and loving way into the church.

    But your statement “There are no Korean girls named Molly” is (a) factually untrue and (b) seems to me uncharacteristically brash. I say (A) because, during my undergraduate years, I had a Korean-American friend named, yes, Molly.

    I state (B) because I see you as insightful and wide-thinking, particularly on issues and questions of racial and multicultural ethnic identity. As such, I am surprised that you would say “Molly” is not a “Korean” name – is “Jason” a Chinese name? Or a European name? Is fried chicken American food? Or Korean? To say that a “Molly” would not be Korean is a surprisingly narrow view, especially with the reality of globalization and the varied stages of assimilation in which various generations of a minority family find themselves – all of whom can still lay authentic claim to their culture of origin.

    That said, I do agree with the general thrust of your article, very much so. The sad fact is still that “American” = “White” = “Anglo” = “Normal”; and the flip side of the coin of assimilation is that the widespread popularity of American entertainment media has led to uptake of American cultural norms across a wide range of cultures and societies. Let’s continue to fight against such cultural imperialism – and joyfully, righteously, so, for to love and seek justice for the marginalized is to experience the heart of the Lord.

    • profrah says:

      Jason, Thanks for chiming in Let me begin with an apology for my lame attempt at humor — particularly for all Koreans named Molly and Felicity. It was a pretty weak attempt at humor on my part. I’ll leave the humor to the comic writers from now on. You also raise a great point. Who owns the culture? Who gets to say what determines the values and inclusion into a culture?

  4. g says:

    The wifey and her sister made me accompany them to an American Girl store last time I was in California. There’s actually ONE Asian American girl (Ivy), but she’s not a main character… she’s the friend of “Julie”, a girl whose life is set during the turbulent 70s in San Francisco:

    But your daughter’s comment about the need for a doll for the Japanese Internment… awesome.

  5. Jessica says:

    I respect many of the things you say, but I do want to point out that the non-white historical dolls are not in the back for any prejudicial reason. They go in reverse chronological order, and the non-white characters are from earlier times. (Now, you can definitely argue that there should be more modern non-white dolls in the historical collection, but at least recognize there was a method to the order of the catalog.)

    I remember when I got my first American Girl catalog in the mail over 20 years ago. There were just Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly–three (white) historical dolls, and the catalog was ordered chronologically. They started expanding the historical line, first with Addy (who was a Northern girl at the time of the Civil War–NOT a slave) and other dolls, both white and non-white. and then went into the modern girls thing. I’m actually sad to see them putting less emphasis on the historical dolls, since that is what is so special about this line of dolls.

    • profrah says:

      Thanks Jessica. I’m glad you gave us some clarification on this.

      One thing I’d like to clarify — in the catalog that I was looking at, the African-American doll (Civil War era) and the Native American doll came after the ad for the 1960’s counter-cultural doll — at the very end of the historical doll section.

      • Kimberly Holmes says:

        Perhaps having those dolls at the end may have been more a compliment, making the African-American and Native American cultures the end-all, be all?

        The company was definitely better prior to selling.

    • LovePhoebe says:

      I would just like to point out that my daughter actually owns the Addy doll, and though at one point in her story she does escape with her mother to the north, in the beginning of her story she actually a slave along with the rest of her family. I definetly understand profrah’s point when speaking about Addy. The fact that they only have 1 African American historical characters and they must make her a free/escaped slave is doesn’t exactly rub me the right way either.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Hi Prof Rah, I would TOTALLY buy a japanese internment doll for my daughter. Great idea! I love this post.. I used to live in Chicago at Chicago and Wabash, across from the “old” AGP (American Girl Place), so avoiding the herds of mom/daughter combos lining up on saturday mornings was a matter of survival. I’ve had many of the conversations echoed in your post, with my sister who has a daughter and who has been unsuccessful in her attempts to find a cute multicultura/multiracial doll for her… My niece now has Josefina. I hope that by the time my daughter is of appropriate age to carry around something other than a bitty-baby, that there will be more choices for her!!

  7. bubbie says:

    there is now an Ivy doll that is asian american. she is friends with Juulie.

  8. waddyathink says:

    Hiya Soong-Chan,

    I learned A LOT about American Girl dolls when buying presents for the Shim girls.

    Isn’t Annah too old for American Girl dolls? She should be entering her tweens, wanting to grown up faster than she should.

    You should tell her that you’ll get her a cell phone, iPod or iPad instead. 😉 More practical.

    We miss you all @ Parkwood!

    In His grace,

  9. Irene says:

    I love that you’re writing about this. A few years ago before American Girl stores exploded across the country, my friend and I visited the flagship store in Chicago. I hadn’t ever heard of the doll or the stories and he was surprised and said that I just had to go visit it knowing how riled up I’d get. So of course I made a mini-scene (and when I say mini I actually mean just plain old scene) in a tongue-in-cheek-manner by asking the sales guy, “where in the world are the Asian girls?? How come there aren’t any Asian dolls?? And how in the world could they have a Caucasian girl playing the violin because we all know that that’s not accurate!! Where’s the Asian girl??” My friend was mortified, even though he suspected this might happen – just maybe not that loudly (and yes I know I was playing into the stereotype that all violinists were Asians). The poor young sales guy sincerely apologized and said that the closest thing to Asian was the Hawaiian gal to which I scoffed very loudly that that’s not the same thing – again I admit I was being difficult just to be difficult. But I was honestly offended that there were only cheerleaders and such type of girls and why wasn’t there a President girl?? My friend tried to educate me that the series was based on history to which I then even more loudly asked, “Then where’s executive girl?? Where’s CEO girl?? Why is there a wheelchair girl but no CEO girl? And what the heck is up with slave girl?? Really? We can have a slave girl but no CEO girl? Is the shovel that comes with the Felicity doll to shovel all the **** that these girls are given? And then if it’s based on history, where’s stripper girl?” I was being totally obnoxious but I was honestly thoroughly horrified at the whole entity of it. I mean parents were video taping their daughter’s doll getting their hair done. REALLY??? And tea was so ridiculously priced!! Children are starving around the world and we’re paying $60 for girls to have tea and sandwiches with their dolls? The whole thing is ludicrous and I’m sorry that you had to cave and get your daughter a doll. I know that you are trying as a parent to do what’s best and these are hard questions to ask about whether to give these things to your child and how will this affect them. I know many say what’s the big deal but it’s good and encouraging to know that your daughter is learning awareness even if it’s through … ugh… American Girl. Thanks!

  10. […] Soong-Chan Rah has a wonderful tale of a parent and child dealing with American Girl’s issues arou…. Highly […]

  11. Arla Little says:

    Professor Rah,

    I came upon your article today during a search of how to go about asking the Mattel Company to make an asian doll who is the main character. Unfortunately, there is not a site (the American Girl or Mattel) that will allow me to do this. Their terms and conditions state that they will not receive any suggestions of any new products.

    My husband and I adopted our youngest daughter from China, and now she has just turned six. Our oldest daughter received her American Girl doll, Molly, when she was in kindergarten after mastering a long list of sight words. This doll even looks like our daughter. Now, in tradition, our youngest daughter is learning the very same list. I was hoping that Mattel would have an Asian-American doll by the time Leah mastered the list.

    I know, Ivy is a fairly new doll who is Chinese. Unfortunately, she is not a main character. What I like about the main characters are that there are stories behind them. Ivy does not have her own story. Leah wants to know why Ivy is not a main character and why she doesn’t come with all the same things that her older sister’s doll has. I’m wondering the same thing.

    There is a site that allows you to sign a petition for an asian doll. I signed it today.

    Hopefully, Mattel will begin to make more ethnic dolls in the future. It just makes me wonder why they haven’t made an Asian American before, considering that we have so many here stateside. By the way, I’m part Chinese too. I personally would like to see one made just for myself.

  12. r mchugh says:

    I find so much anti-white overtones and prejudice in this article. and many statements overall i’ve heard from you. but thank God for the American church, which God has used in wonderful ways throughout history and today. it is the great sacrifice of many American missionaries over the last 200 years that has resulted in Budhist nations like Korea being mostly Chistian today. I hope to hear more about you speaking to Korean churches and tell them to become more diverse and let some white people in there!

  13. Lynn says:

    Have you seen these dolls?

    This collection also includes a BEAUTIFUL Asian doll. You can order it with or without bangs.
    These dolls are 18″ and have slimmer arms & legs than the American Girl dolls.

  14. Yes! Ever since I was about 10 or 11 years old, I’ve been saying they should make a WWII Japanese American Girl doll.

    My grammy was in the internment camps when she was a girl. So, she’s told me stories and shown me pictures of her growing up in the camps. It’d make a great AG story! And the interment of the Japanese Americans is something that a lot of people don’t really know about or acknowledged. So, I really think they need an AG doll to share the story.

    And as far as Asian American Girl dolls in general, there was one American Girl Today (aka Just Like You, My American Girl) who was definitely Asian (among AG collectors she’s referred to as JLY #4). The mold for her head was called the “Asian Mold”. Originally, JLY #4s had a more yellow skin tone, but Mattel got rid of that. JLY #4 was released in 1995 and was retired last year. So, currently there are no dolls with the “Asian Mold” face.

    There was Jess McConnell who was the 2006 Girl of the Year. Jess is Hapa; she has a Japanese American mother and a Scottish and Irish father. So, she’s half. Personally, I was incredibly excited when Jess came out, being half Japanese and half Irish. And last year’s Girl of the Year was Kanani Akina, who’s Hawaiian. But, like Jess and JLY #4, she’s been retired.

    Jess’ face is the “Jess Mold”. Ivy, who is the historical character Julie’s friend, has the “Jess Mold” face. And there are three American Girl Today dolls that have that face. But, I agree, they don’t look very Asian. And they look not Asian at all compared to JLY #4.

    If your daughter still wants an Asian American AG doll, I would suggest trying to find a JLY #4. And to incorporate the educational aspect (my parents are the same way, I think I turned out better for it), you could make her into a historical character. You could encourage your daughter to research and write her own historical story for the doll. I still think AG should make an Asian American doll, but until then (hopefully), this could be an option.

    Thank you for this article! I think this is an issue that needs to be brought to people’s attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s