As a little girl, I could think of nothing more fun than taking over my family’s living room with dollhouses and creating an elaborate storyline in which my Sweet Streets met my Fisher-Price dolls and my Polly Pockets, as well. My parents loved my creativity and ability to entertain myself with these dolls. My one limitation around dolls was that I couldn’t have Barbies, due to their controversial status of promoting an unattainable ideal of beauty for girls (especially for me, as a child of color). This rule was first broken by my maternal uncle when I was four years old and followed by a paternal aunt the next Christmas. With two blonde haired, blue-eyed Barbies in my possession, my mother figured that Barbies were here to stay – but if they were going to be in our house, I would have Barbies of different racial backgrounds.
On my sixth birthday, I remember opening Florida Vacation Christie and Theresa, Barbie’s African-American and Hispanic best friends. As my collection of Barbies inevitably grew, my mother made sure that I had Kira, the Asian doll (who had blue eyes…), red-headed Midge, and other Christie and Teresa dolls, as well. Not only was it important to her that I had ethnically diverse dolls, she also wanted me to have a more positive image than just the “Florida Vacation” set. While of course I had princess Barbies, I also had a veterinarian Barbie, teacher Barbie, and the then very controversial pregnant Midge doll. Though hard to find, astronaut Barbie and doctor Barbie are models of successful and brainy women. My Barbie village emulated my mother’s hopes for me as a future woman of color – strong, intelligent, and surrounded by diversity.
As I peruse the walls of major retailers’ toy sections now, I become reminiscent in the doll isle. The medical supplies on the rolling cart that my veterinarian Barbie held onto have been replaced with plastic necklaces, glittering rhinestones, and fake cell phones. Her name is now “Mall Kiosk Barbie.” My dark Christie doll has been replaced by a doll of the same name, but who has blonde highlights and light cocoa brown skin.
The whitening of the Christie doll is obvious when looking at these comparative images. She, however, is not the only Mattel doll to have been “whitened” over time. A Washington Post article reveals that “Mattel now owns the American Girl dolls and is reshaping the brand in response to consumer demand.” While American Girl does have a nice selection of African American dolls in the “My American Girl” section, it is the Asian doll that has been whitened to a non-descript, multi-purpose/ethnic character.
My first American Girl doll was the Asian doll from the “Girls of Today” section. I remember naming her Abigail and writing a book for her. I pretended that, like me, Abigail was adopted from China. While I knew girls at Chinese school who were adopted, having Abigail meant that I had someone with me all the time who understood being Chinese-American. I could explain to Abigail that she didn’t need to be afraid of the plane ride to the U.S. and that the cats we lived with weren’t scary. I could tell Abigail that her birthparents would always love her and that her adoptive mother (me) would, too. Though informing Abigail of these things was more about reassuring myself of the same truths, she was an important part of my childhood, and I don’t know if I would have felt as comfortable creating this identity for a doll with which I didn’t so closely identify.
The most distinguishing characteristics of Abigail were her thinner eye sockets and slightly wider nose than the Classic American Girl doll. This mold had a rounded chin and full cheeks, and originally came in a more golden skin tone which was later lightened to the Classic shade. Unfortunately, American Girl retired the Asian mold in 2011, leaving the Jess mold as the “Asian” option. The Jess mold has thinner and more almond-shaped eyes than the other molds, though they are not quite at the same slant as the Asian mold. Jess Akiko McConnell was the “Girl of the Year” in 2006. Her father is of Irish and Scottish descent and her mother is of Japanese descent, although both sides of the family have lived in the USA for several generations. While the Jess mold works to create a doll of half Asian decent, she cannot replace the Asian mold, leaving current Asian American girls without a doll who reflects them. In my opinion, retiring the Asian mold and leaving Jess, a face that can be an ambiguous Latina, Asian-ish, or even white girl is only acceptable because customers do not demand a range of diversity in their children’s toys.
More than just whitening out the Asian doll, I am deeply disappointed to learn about American Girl’s recent decision to retire two dolls of color, the Ivy Ling and Cécile Rey dolls. While I found it problematic that these girls of color were only the sidekicks or “best friends” of the white heroins, removing them entirely does nothing to address the issue. Because Cécile is one of two African American historical dolls and Ivy is the only Asian American doll, their retirement means that there are only three girls of color in the historical dolls collection, none of which are Asian. American Girl likes to purport this image of “empowering girls,” but how can that happen when only certain girls are featured? This move leads me to question Mattel’s image of an “American girl,” as well as the general consumer’s definition. I have Latina, African American, Chinese born, and Amharic speaking friends, and we are all American girls.
Not surprisingly, it isn’t just iconic dolls of color that get whitened over time. Disney is guilty of this, too. Almost every little girl in the country knows Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White. I remember when Mulan came out and was ecstatic because Disney had created a beautiful, brave, loving “princess” who looked somewhat like me. Currently, racial and ethnic minorities make up about half of children under the age of 5-years-old, but less than 1/3 of Disney Princesses. In 2012, Disney was the subject of some controversy as they tweaked their princesses‘ appearances by adding more make-up, bedazzling their dresses, and noticeably Westernizing the four POC princesses’ features by lightening their skin, enlarging their eyes and narrowing their noses. This is troubling, especially when considering a 2009 study that asked children what they would need to do to become a princess. The majority of girls (N=99) believed that they could be a princess regardless of their weight and age, but approximately, 8% (N=8) suggested the would need to change their hair or skin colour to become a princess. Some responses included, “I’d need yellow hair”, “I’d paint myself white”, and “I would change from brown skin to white skin.”
By whitewashing these classic Disney princesses, the company has only confirmed these young girls’ observations that being white or a POC with white features is a criterion to be a princess. Because of consumer buying patterns, the message to companies is that white sells. And when the majority of role models and idols for little girls are white, the message to white, black, Asian, Latina, mixed-race girls across the country is that white is beautiful. The face of America is changing though. In five years, racial and ethnic minorities will represent more than half of the demographic of those 18-years-old and under. As there are more and more children of color in this country, we must demand their image to be promoted and advertised as beautiful instead of retired and hidden away.
While I understand the desire to have a matching doll, I think one fundamental problem is that white dolls are seen as being for white girls, and black dolls are seen as being for only black girls. Instead of continuing lines of preschool segregation, we should be encouraging diversity in our ever-diversifying world. There is a mild success story from the 2012 Disney Princess changes. The recent edit gave Mulan blue eyes and ghostly pale skin, but after much consumer complaint, Disney revised the 2012 edit to have brown eyes and (very slightly) tanned skin again. These companies have made it clear that they care about sales and keeping customers more than the effects of the images they are promoting to young girls. One action people can take is to write to these companies, expressing their frustrations and concerns. More effectively, people need to be conscious consumers, actively purchase dolls of color, and introduce them to their children at a young age. If we believe diversity is important, it is critical that our buying patterns reflect our values.