American Girl Still Matters to This 24-Year-Old Latina

American Girl Molly Josefina

I loved playing with dolls when I was growing up. Before my teenage years came along, I was an enthusiast for every doll available on the market at the time – Polly Pocket, Bratz, and Barbie, as well as figurines like Littlest Pet Shop. But to me, there was no doll company like American Girl. More than just a line of cute 18” dolls, it was an experience of play and imagination unlike any other.

Trips to the American Girl store and reading through the annual catalog were full-day events, even if my mom didn’t end up buying me anything. I religiously read their advice books about body care, manners, school, friendship, and money management. I played their board and online virtual games for hours at a time. I watched, then re-watched, their live-action movies starring their dolls in the real world, which I would argue set a precedent for the critically acclaimed Barbie movie last summer. To some extent, the by-products were more exciting to me than the dolls themselves, of which I had four – Molly, Emily, Kit, and Jess – thanks to my overly generous grandmother over the course of several Christmases.

But as impactful as American Girl was on my life, I’m 24 now and haven’t thought about any of this in years. That is until American Girl announced earlier this month that they would be re-issuing the original versions of three dolls from their Historical Line with special tribute collections, including Josefina Montoya.

Maybe I would have loved Josefina more if a writer of Mexican descent had written her story

Sofía Aguilar

Released in 1997, Josefina was their first Latina doll and remains the only Latina or Mexican doll in their Historical Line. As someone who comes from a Mexican family, I’ll be the first to admit that I had somewhat of a complicated relationship with Josefina. We shared many similarities in terms of our backgrounds and languages but I never felt as represented by her as I did by Molly McIntire.

Though Molly is an Anglo-American girl living through World War II, she was – and remains to this day – the only American Girl doll to wear glasses, which me feel less dorky and ashamed of my own frames and poor vision. That, and the fact that she mirrored my vintage style of sweaters and locket necklaces, cemented her in my mind as the doll that best represented me, even if we didn’t share the same ethnicity.

It’s not that I thought American Girl was being disingenuous with their diversity and inclusion practices – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I know that the company spent years working with an experienced advisory board to craft Josefina’s appearance, clothing, and backstory, way before any DEI practices or conversations surrounding diversity were commonplace.

But something about Josefina never sat right with me. Maybe it’s because dating her story to 1824 unintentionally makes Mexican culture seem like a relic of the past. Simultaneously, they avoid making any kind of connection with genocide or war that Josefina would have faced in real life, which is a similar critique that has been made about their only Native doll, Kaya.

While I can understand American Girl wanting to make the stories age-appropriate for young girls, I believe that it does more damage to present to children a mythological conception or Western perspective of history that never actually happened. It goes against the company’s stated values of authenticity, representation, and helping young girls feel empowered and seen.

And with their outrageous price tags that today are at $150 per doll, I have to wonder who these dolls are really for. By and large, the marginalized communities they’re writing about have been systematically removed from the kind of financial privilege needed. Not to mention that no Historical dolls of color have ever gotten their own film adaptation, further othering the BIPOC experience and consumer base.

This is by no means a new or singular problem. We’ve seen this push-and-pull between white-led companies and the communities they claim to represent for decades across mediums. We’ve seen what happens when promises are made without input, like in the original 1961 film West Side Story and the beloved children’s book Skippyjon Jones. We even know what goes down when our community does damage to itself like in In the Heights and American Dirt.

Something about Josefina never sat right with me. Maybe it’s because dating her story to 1824 unintentionally makes Mexican culture seem like a relic of the past.

Sofía Aguilar

With American Girl, however, I truly believe that a little work on their part can make radical change. For example, it’s well-known that Valerie Tripp wrote the majority of the corresponding doll books for the company. While she is by no means a bad writer, I believe that there was a missed opportunity to include writers of color in the creation of the dolls that are supposed to represent them.

Maybe I would have loved Josefina more if a writer of Mexican descent had written her story for that extra layer of authenticity. And how much would it have meant for the Nez Perce community not to just have offered their input into the creation of the Kaya doll, but also for a Nez Perce writer to have written her story? What more would young girls have learned if a Black southern writer had written the books about Addy Walker, a young Black girl living through the Civil War? It’s not enough just to have our voices supporting a project. It’s so much more powerful when we speak up for ourselves.

But despite everything, American Girl still matters to me. There’s still a part of me that wants to go visit the American Girl store on the weekend and re-engage with the books and movies. And I know that for the next generation, American Girl continues to be a way to view the world and understand themselves. Looking forward, I’m excited to see the dolls, their books, and merchandise, only get better from here.

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