Black Girls and the American Girl Doll Dillemma
Today a few friends and I took a field trip to the local mall. Our destination? The new American Girl store, two stories of little girl heaven. We planned to get there early on a weekday in order to avoid the lines that are common in the evenings and on weekends. Since we are all students, ten a.m. worked well.
I bought along the American Girl doll my daughter received for Christmas. Yes, we, her parents, were the folks who bought it for her. It wasn’t an easy purchase, mainly due to the price. For the doll, a stand, and a brush, the total came to about $160. That was the only gift she received for Christmas from us.
I never had an American Girl doll growing up. Honestly, I had no idea what they were until about a year ago when my little girl started talking about them. After doing a little research, I see they were big in the 1990s, but perhaps I was a little too old for them by then. In any case, I was totally in the dark about the dolls and likely when I was a preteen I wouldn’t of even shaped my mouth to ask for such a thing. Not at $100.
But I did it for my little girl. Living where we live, and where a lot of black girls live, there are no positive images of little black girls. No book series for the young reader. No engineering sets. A whole lot of nothing. And her talk about her white dolls being more adorable than her blacks ones was breaking my heart (I’d never bought her a white doll, but other people had.) And many of her friends already had at least one of the dolls. I’m not usually one to do what everyone else does, but I recognized the cultural capital inherent in the dolls. Just like Bey Blades and Pokemon are today’s popular toys for the kids in my son’s circle, American Girl is the “it” toy for my girl and her friends. And given it was her only Christmas grift due to the cost, I didn’t feel like I was spoiling her.
When the doll came, however, I was a bit disappointed, and my daughter too. Mostly because she didn’t look the way I imagined. I expected dark skin, dark brown eyes, and “textured” hair. This was a “My American Girl” doll, meaning she was not one of the historical characters who simply came “as is.” This doll was supposed to be one that looked like my daughter, an “American girl.” I thought I was getting a somewhat close approximation.
For the most part, it was correct: dark skin, dark brown eyes. But the hair…the hair was a problem. I couldn’t notice any real “texture.” I peered closely to each individual strand, trying to ascertain the difference between the straight blond hair and this straight dark brown hair. I imagined that I saw texture, but whether I saw it or not was irrelevant; you couldn’t DO anything with this hair. It didn’t hold a braid, which to me, textured hair should do. My daughter, like myself, has locs, and I so wanted to be able to do individual braids in her hair (by the way, her name is Bella, as named by my daughter) so that she would look more like my girl. But it was impossible.
But I’d spent over $150 and I didn’t have what I wanted. Furthermore, over the weekend, my daughter talked to one of her “uncles” and told him that she wanted the doll with the curly hair because she “looked more like” my child. He told me this on our field trip, which made me happy that I decided to bring the doll with me to the store. I planned to ask them whether the processing center got my order wrong and what we could do about it.
Come to find out that there really is no such thing as “textured” hair on any of the “My American Girl” dolls. Besides bone straight, you can only get silky curly or textured curly. Textured curly actually looks like my daughter’s hair in its natural state (cuz she has Indian in her family, lol) but it wouldn’t look like many black girls hair. I expected something coarse, but brushable, like my hair once was when unpermed but blow dried.
That only comes with the character Addy doll.
And the Addy doll is an escaped slave.
Sigh. I’m still processing what this means. I want textured hair, but I don’t want to buy an enslaved character as my child’s doll. Now, she is an escaped slave, so part of her story is about getting to freedom. But until recently, the ONLY black American girl doll was a slave. To be black and American means, in this company’s eyes, to be enslaved. And at NO point in American history does black automatically equal slave. That is just a false and blatant untruth.
On the flip side, the company does give the option to make a girl who is like “you,” meaning not just in looks, but in activities and interests. The dolls have bikes and horses and gymnastics sets and hair salons and tennis and dance equipment and doctor jackets. The girls can wear glasses or have freckles or be in a wheelchair or use crutches. You can make the doll of your choice. Your black girl can be anything.
Except that if you want kinky hair, you have to buy the slave.
Buy the slave.
Again, I’m still processing this. I really wanted kinky hair. As black women — hell, as women — our hair means something. It’s political, it’s personal. It’s part of what makes us feel like women. I know this is not the case for every woman, but it is the case for me. I love my hair. And I’m trying to build a love of her loced hair in my daughter too. So …
Am I supporting a blatantly racist company? Am I supporting a suspect racist company? Is selling a black enslaved girl doll in the most popular doll store in America a problem? Does the fact that you can purchase non-slave black girl dolls tip the scales toward non-racist? There is now another black girl, a fluently French speaking creole in New Orleans. But she’s not dark, and she doesn’t have the textured hair — it’s more curly and silky. Does she make up for the slave?
My friend says there are better black dolls out there to buy that more accurately reflect us. I don’t think I’m as concerned about whether the doll truly looks like my girl — the white dolls are pretty generic too — as I am with the message behind the characters. Let me know what you think in the comments.
P.S. If you don’t know about American Girl, start here.