American Girl Dolls Didn’t Represent My Heritage Growing Up but Their New Dia de Muertos Doll Is a Start
At 9 years old, when I received my first American Girl catalog, I marveled at the variety of miniature items they had for sale. Tiny musical instruments and sports uniforms could be picked out to mirror your doll’s hobbies to your own, anything you could think of. The diverse range of the dolls’ appearances, from different skin tones to hair textures made it easy to find one that looked physically like you.
Now, it’s been about a decade since I checked out their website, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more inclusive the brand has gotten over the years, compared to when I got my first doll.
The beloved toy company has been adding to their slate of cultural outfits for the 18-inch dolls: a brocade two-piece outfit for Diwali, an Eid al-Fitr set with a mini pink hijab. There are more outfits for celebrations like Kwanzaa, Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, and Christmas for young girls to learn more about different cultures.
But what made my heart jump was their new Día de Muertos Celebration Outfit, inspired by the traditional outfits from the state of Chiapas in Mexico. The $48 set includes a black off-the-shoulder dress, featuring a ruffled neckline, bright-colored floral embroidery, and a yellow sash across the waist. It has a matching headband with a marigold, a masquerade mask with sugar skull face paint, and a candle fit for a tiny ofrenda.
I couldn’t help but think of a little 9-year-old me, who didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday, but who would have been wonderstruck by seeing a representation of Latino culture for an American brand.
American Girl has made progress in capturing the diversity of its audience in recent years. When I was first was interested in them, young Black and brown girls only had Addy, Josefina, and Kaya dolls to identify with physically, and through their books. The brand slowly started creating more diverse stories for new historical dolls and their limited-time Girl Of The Year dolls with contemporary stories.
The disparity is still there though: 15 dolls from the entire latter collection are characterized as white, while only eight are nonwhite.
Honoring celebrations like Día de Muertos through cultural outfits for dolls is more significant than they might realize. Young girls are being exposed to celebrations from different cultures at an earlier age, and this widens their view of the world. In some instances, they’ll even learn about their own culture. Plus, their dolls will resemble them in more ways than one, and that could be their first time experiencing that.
Feeling represented through a toy might seem like a trivial thing to some, but for children, it can change how they look at the world.
“When kids of color don’t see themselves represented in media and toys, they don’t feel as valued, like something might be wrong with them,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Nanika Coor to Maisonette. “They start to ask themselves why they aren’t there or think they need to assimilate into white society, to change themselves to belong. And white children are getting that same message — that kids of color don’t belong in their worlds.”
Although I honestly don’t think I could tell you exactly what Día de Muertos was at that age — or a lot of other things that had to do with my culture, for that matter — I understood that it was something I should be proud of. It made me feel more empowered as a kid to see TV characters I loved celebrate their quinceañera or speak Spanish.
My black-haired and brown-eyed doll was my most prized possession at the time, and while she couldn’t be an exact representation of myself then, it’s encouraging to know that young Latinas can feel proud of and learn about their culture in such a fun way now.
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