“I Want a Doll That Looks Like Me!”: Kinship, Race and Motherhood in Dolls

When I was a kid, all my friends had American girl dolls who they could dress up, play with, and most importantly, imagine were like them, their children, their look-alikes. After months of begging, Molly McIntire arrived in my Christmas stocking, a doll who had long brown hair like me, glasses like me, and freckles like me. I was obsessed with having a doll who looked like me, a doll that I could feel attached to, who I could pretend was like me. This was common among my friends—we all wanted the dolls that looked like us.

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On the left: Molly, Source: American Girl Doll website, On the right: Me, around the time I was playing with American Girl Dolls

However, this wasn’t always the case. Before I got Molly, I had Kaya, a Native American doll from the mid 1700s. I wanted Kaya for months, and loved her stories, her accessories, her hair, and everything about her. I got Kaya first, before my friends had other American Girl dolls. However, I realized after I got Kaya that people were supposed to want dolls who looked like them, which was why I began to desire Molly, who looked like me. When we were talking about dolls in class last week, I thought a lot about American Girls, and why I chose to have the dolls that I had.

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Kaya, Source: American Girl Doll Website

One comment really got me thinking- I took a class in the fall called “Sociology of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction” with Liz Raleigh, in which we talked a great deal about what it means to create and have kinship, and how racial differences can cause a disruption in the production of kinship. Since dolls exist to teach girls that motherhood is the expectation for them, the expectation that a girl can have kinship with her doll is crucial. For many people, race is essential for creating kinship with children, and therefore dolls, thus the idea that a doll that does not match the ethnicity of the doll-owner disrupts what it means for girls to be playing with dolls as a mean to learn mothering ideals.

When we first began talking about American Girl dolls, I kept thinking about how great it is that they have dolls of multiple races, many backgrounds, and with many different stories. However, the more we talked about it, I realized how problematic this tokenization is of these girls as a representation of the entire Native American community (Kaya) and a tokenization of the entire African-American community (Abby). We watched a clip from the show “Blackish” in class, in which a young black girl goes into a doll store to find a black doll, and is shown a wide variety of white dolls who have different diseases, achievements, and other aspects, but there are only two black dolls- one who is a runaway slave (meant to represent Abby) and the other who is involved in the civil rights movement (meant to represent Melody).

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Source: Yahoo! TV

This issue of racial representation is not unique to American Girl dolls, and in the Jezebel article “Black Barbies: A Question of Representation,” author LatoyaPeterson highlights a statement from the designer of the new line of black Barbies, who said, “three dolls can’t represent the whole African-American community,” which the LatoyaPeterson accurately criticizes, saying McBride does not realize “her statement is the root of the issue.”[1] These American Girl dolls of color, despite being a step in the right direction, are still marginalizing women of color in the United States, and inaccurately representing the vast range of experiences of women of color in the United States.

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Source: Her Campus

[1] “Black Barbies: A Question of Representation,” Jezebel, last modified December 3, 2009, accessed May 21, 2017, http://jezebel.com/5418165/black-barbies-a-question-of-representation.

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3 thoughts on ““I Want a Doll That Looks Like Me!”: Kinship, Race and Motherhood in Dolls

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  1. It’s also really interesting to think about how the collection of historical American Girl Dolls attempts to construct a multicultural national identity through this tokenization of specific races.The historical collection could potentially be even more problematic than other dolls because it contextualizes each doll within a relatively romanticized history. This American Girl history not only erases the experiences of these specific groups, but also, in the case of Kaya absolves the colonizers of guilt and renders indigenous struggles as a thing of the past, rather than an ongoing problem. In addition, tokenization also narrowly reduces the experience and history of marginalized races to the experience of that single doll. Or in the case of Addy and Melody, their lives are the only ones rendered even slightly political. Meanwhile, the white dolls are all neutral and apolitical. Also, they discontinued the only Asian historical doll, basically erasing Asians from their history of the United States.

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  2. We chatted about this idea that children are socialized to want dolls that look like them (rather than it being an innate process) a bit during our group discussion, and what I think I am struggling with most is this idea that having any representation is better than no representation. Like, we give kudos to American Girl for having any dolls of color available, even if they are a gross misrepresentation and simplification of an entire race (the idea that if you’re black, you’re either a slave or a civil rights activist)… but shouldn’t we expect more from them? In your post, you say “These American Girl dolls of color, despite being a step in the right direction, are still marginalizing women of color in the United States,” and I think that we are kind of taught to be thankful for these steps towards equality, but I’m seeing a paradox in this line of thinking: if American Girl is making a move that marginalizes women of color, in any sense, then how can we call this a step in the right direction? Is this progress, or is it exploitation?!

    Asking for representation is SO hard because the systems of racial oppression do not allow for a step big enough to avoid playing into stereotypes!

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    1. I’m really interested in laylortynn’s comment, particularly their last couple of sentences: “is this progress or is it exploitation?! Asking for representation is SO Hard because the systems of racial oppression do not allow for a step big enough to avoid playing into stereotypes!” I think this is a really important thing to think about, and something that has come up pretty much constantly throughout this course. It reminds me a lot of Peiss and the ways in which white men exploited the black beauty industry in order to profit off of black women, without actually consulting, hiring, or involving black women in any capacity. This leads me to wonder – how much does American Girl involve actual PoC when designing their dolls? I’m sure they get consultants for the historical aspects, but does that mean, like, white historians who are “experts” in the field of American slavery, or actual black women? Or, for marapugh’s post about Groovy Girls, were PoC involved in the designing of the PoC Groovy Girls? I have no idea – I could possibly find out if I did some research, but frankly, it’s reading days and I don’t have the time for that right now!! Regardless, it’s something interesting to think about.

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