An Open Letter to American Girl

My American girls

My American girls


As many of you may know, my girls and I are huge fans of American Girl dolls. Thing 1 and Thing 2 have several dolls in their collection, as well as books, clothing, furniture and all kinds of fun accessories.  Last week American Girl announced that it will be retiring four of its Historical Dolls: Marie-Grace, Cecile, Ruthie and Ivy.  With this announcement I am forced to focus on what has become for me a  troubling marketing practice of this doll company, which is their lack of diversity in their product offerings.  Cecile is one of only two African-American Historical Dolls and Ivy is the only Asian American Historical Doll.  While it is true that customers can walk into the store and buy a doll with different hair, skin and eye color combinations, the Girl of The Year and the Historical Dolls are very homogeneous.  These are the dolls that have built the brand.  Every year, little girls world-wide wait impatiently for the Girl of the Year to be announced and those that can head to the store January 1st to make their purchase, while others log on to the internet to place their order.    There are books, costumes, special accessories all created to develop a story…to make magic. Over time I have become increasingly uncomfortable with just who the company believes represents an American girl.

In light of my feelings on this issue, I felt that I needed to voice my concerns directly to the company.  What follows is the body of my open letter to American Girl, to the attention of Ms. Stephanie Spanos, Human Relations Manager:

Dear Ms. Spanos,

My name is Lisa Owen and I am a writer and blogger at My So Called Glamorous Life:  the Adventures of a Domestic Engineer. More importantly, I am a wife and mother to two spirited and doll loving girls, ages 6 and 7.  We are huge fans of American Girl, with 8 dolls in our collection (Bitty Babies, Bitty Twins, and My American Girl); and have attended excursions while enjoying lunch, tea, and dinner at a couple of your locations (Houston and, our favorite, Chicago).  We own several of your books including The Care and Keeping of You, 1 (an excellent book!) and the accompanying journal. Your stores are magical, tending to every detail of these dolls’ storied lives, to the delight of my girls and millions of others worldwide.  Therefore, it is with great disappointment that I write this letter.

Recently, you announced that you would retire four of your Historical Dolls: Marie – Grace, Cecile, Ruthie, and Ivy.  I, and others, have noted that once they are retired, your historical collection will include very few dolls of color.  In fact, there will be one African American doll (Addy), one Native American doll (Kaya) and one Latina doll (Josefina) out of 18 characters.  You are retiring the only Asian American doll.  Your announcement hinted at new dolls and /or marketing strategy (#BeForever) in the coming months, but your choice of which dolls to retire concerns me.  I’m sure that your decision has something to do with sales (although speaking personally, my 6-year-old has been saving money to buy Cecile for months now), but it’s hard for me to believe that the significance of retiring these particular dolls didn’t occur to you.

The truth is, I’ve been keeping an eye on you for some time now.  While I consider your brand to be overall wholesome and good for the girls, I have also noted that your offerings are not really reflective of the changing ethnic makeup of the country, particularly when it comes to the Girl of the Year.  Each year, beginning around November, my girls and their friends start to get really excited with anticipation of the release of the new doll and, inevitably, that doll is white (and oddly, overwhelmingly blonde and blue eyed).  Since the introduction of the first American Girl of the Year in 2001 only 3 have been girls of color: Knani, who is Hawaiian, Marisol, who is Latina, and Jess, who is actually mixed race (Japanese, Scottish, and Irish).  This has become increasingly frustrating and somewhat puzzling since the face of America is changing.  Currently, racial and ethnic minorities make up about half of children under the age of 5-years-old.  In five years they will represent more than half of the demographic of those 18-years-old and under.  Yet, the American Girl brand clings very closely to one narrative of who represents an American girl.

As with any business, I am sure that your sales and marketing team determine what dolls, and their accessories, will sell best and who to target with their marketing strategies.  However, consider this: more and more brown girls are being parented by white parents–parents who want to honor them and embrace their ethnicity.  Additionally, all the brown girls that I know – including, but not limited to, African American, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Korean, Vietnamese, Somalian, Ethiopian, Indian, Brazilian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Trinidadian (and the list can go on) – have American Girl dolls.  Some of these girls are first generation, but they are all, each of them, American girls.   My daughters and I are African American and while we enjoy your store and appreciate the My American Girl dolls that reflect our own ethnicity, there seems to be a disconnect between your product offerings and many of the girls, and their credit card wielding mothers, who buy them.  Additionally, even if the majority of your customers are Caucasian, is it not desirable that we would encourage our girls to expand their knowledge of people of different ethnicities?   To embrace our differences rather than focus only on those who look just like us?  My children have dolls of more than one race because it reflects their immediate social circle and the country that we live in.

If in fact the goal of American Girl is to predominantly focus on only one type of American girl, then I can accept that and I can take my business elsewhere.  However, I really would be surprised if that is the case, both for social and business reasons.  I need to tell you that your current offerings of Historical and Girl of the Year dolls scream of tokenism.  I am aware that your company has stated that often decisions made about discontinuing certain dolls are made when there are similarities between products, but surely you can see where that can’t be quite accurate?  Ivy Ling is the only Asian American Historical doll.  On the other hand, you have a plethora of white dolls, some of whom look amazingly alike.  May I ask you, when it comes to product development, do you have any people of color in key decision-making positions?  If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to diversify and develop a fresh perspective.

Ms. Spanos, I really hope that this is merely a bump in the road and that my girls, and the many American girls of color who are fans of your brand, can find a way to be represented in a meaningful way going forward.  I appreciate your careful consideration of my letter (which will be also be publicly posted on my website) and hope that this can be the beginning of open, constructive dialog as it pertains to American girls of all ethnicities.  I look forward to hearing from you.



Lisa Owen

29 responses »

  1. Good for you Lisa in sending the letter. We have noticed this too in raising an Asian (Chinese adopted) daughter. So much so that when she got to American girl doll age, we ended up going a different route and getting a doll from a more Asian friendly company. I didn’t want our girl to feel like all she could be was someone else’s side-kick just because she is a minority. I very much hope they listen and respond.

  2. No tokenism in the Girl of the Year line. No African American girls represented at all. Not a one. No dark skinned girl at all. Some Asian mixed girls, yes, but not a single GOTY with dark skin,eyes, hair all togetether. The Asians had to have one or more of those three things lightened up as did the Latina.

    No Asian historical doll at all whether from India, Guam, Japan, Malaysia, Vietname, nothing. Ivy was a best friend, an accessory. No PJs, nor furniture. Just one Chinese outfit and then they threw in a towel (literally) with a terry cloth horror to help Julie wash the car. So much they could have done with her. Did nothing. Better she’s gone so AG can feel the pressure to put a full fledged effort for an Asian girl.

    AA girls? Two dolls of AA descent. Neither do well. Better if AG retired the both and tried again, but cheaper just to brush off old Addy and keep her in place. Too bad that gorgeous Cecile did not sell, but she and Marie Grace were the worst AG doll failures of all time. The last sale on those dolls was ridiculously low. That’s how badly that one went. Why you or anyone is wanting those dolls to remain makes no sense. The girl, in general, do not want those dolls. Hopefully, AG will come up with other such doll, but really, AAs have had more than other minorities, and there should be more representation from ethnic groups whose stories have yet to be told. And color should not be in the picure for that. Put the different stories, as many as one can find in a hat and pull. But of course in a business, they also test to see which dolls, stories will sell. No sell, no good business. And dark skinned dolls do not do well even with dark skinned girls as the Clark studies so resoundly show. Those of color need to put their money where their mouths are. They have not been doing so in proportional numbers.

    Girl of the Year is where the real show is and that’s where there have been zero dark skinned dolls. But if AG does do one, what if she does not sell well at all? What if she tanks like Cecile, Marie Grace did? That is the top selling line right now with the formula they are using. The numbers and studies are saying that a dark skinned doll isn’t going to bring in anywhere near the numbers that a blond will. Who is going to put their money where their mouths are? Mia was supposed to be dark skinned by the way, and AG came that close to releasing her, but the market studies said no way. So they basically released the same old, same old (Nicki and Mia are very much alike and they are back to back) and, yep, Mia sold well.

    So those who cry and complain, what will they do if the money does not come in when a company does as they ask and it flops, badly? Who is going to pay for this?

    • When I used the term tokenism, I meant in the entire AG product offering. I agree with you that any additions to the Historical collection do not necessarily have to be AA. I am African American, but in my letter I made it a point to say that the ethnic make up of this country is so diverse that, as you said, there are any different stories to tell. As for brown GOTY, AG is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mattel, Inc., a multi-million dollar company. They can afford to launch a brown GOTY doll and see show she does. No company is guaranteed success with every product offering. That’s the price of doing business. My guess is that the doll may not be the highest selling GOTY, but she’ll do just fine. Thank you for your comment.

  3. My daughter is Caucasian with brown eyes and hair. She has Marie-Grace, Molly, McKenna, Kirsten, Saige, and Cecile. She wants Addy, Kaya, Josephine, and Julie. She likes to have a bunch of dolls that look different and loves the stories. I think that a variety of skin, hair, and eye combos would sell well for the reason of originality and variety. In reality though, a lot of girls get one or two dolls and may tend to just pick one that looks like them?

    • Like your daughter, I really like the stories, too! You’re right, many girls are only going to get 1 or 2 dolls and I understand that they pick what they love. I just think that AG could do a much better job of giving the girls a greater variety to choose from.

  4. My daughter has Kirsten, Mckenna, Molly, Saige, Marie-Grace, and Cecile. She wants Addy, Josephine, and Julie. She is Caucasian with brown hair and eyes. She is 7 and loves the variety in her dolls. In reality though, many girls only get one or two dolls and pick one that looks most like them or just go with the popular girl of the year doll.

  5. I hope you get a favorable response. My dd is white and owns Josefina and Cecile. She has Addy, Ivy and Kaya on her list but now Ivy is leaving and we just don’t have the money to get her before the new “Beforever” launch. She thinks Addy is beautiful. She is 8 and often asks why they are retiring Ivy and Cecile. Even SHE doesn’t understand. I truly hope that the next historical is a DOC and the GOTY year too. I am an adult and enjoy these dolls as much as she does but even I do not understand why AG doesn’t make more dolls that reflect the girls of today.
    I applaud you in writing this letter.

  6. Good for you for writing this letter, as I sit in Indonesia, surrounded by Asian/brown girls everywhere. It would be wonderful to see them, and their culture and stories in the AG line. Frankly though I was not a fan of the dolls or the line when my daughter was younger. We had a ton of them, mostly though because my daughter’s best friend’s mother lives the line and stories and bought so many for her daughter. We pillgrames to the store in Chicago and went to the opening of the store in St Louis, where was live at the time. My daughter had all the accessories and played with them when her friends came over. We read the books (my favorite part of the line) and she had a doll with her hair and eye colors, and a matching dress to boot. But I always felt manipulated by AG, to buy more stuff. And when alone, my daughter chose to play with her soft cloth dolls, that were more cuddly.

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  8. I really hope that they read and positively respond to your letter! Growing up I always wished for an American Girl doll, but sadly they were out of my parents price range. I couldn’t agree more that they need to have more diversity. I look forward to hearing about their response!

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