When American Girl Dolls hit the market in 1986, the focus was on American History and how little girls lived during various eras of our nation's development. But over the years, the company has expanded the types of dolls it manufactures. In the 1990s, a customizable American Girl was created, and it was a hit: Little girls want dolls they can relate to, that look like them. And the customization is getting more specific: Allergy-free lunches and hearing aids, for instance.
When my sister and I were kids, my parents had a tough time finding us dolls with our skin tone; black dolls came in one shade: dark-skinned. We played with both white dolls and dark-skinned dolls, but I know that we expressed interest in — and got excited by — the rare doll that had a café au lait complexion. Even with the still-developing mind of a child, there was a validation that came from seeing your characteristics reflected back at you. It was like the world was whispering, We recognize that you exist. By the time American Girl Dolls came out, I was already way too old to be interested, but I think my sister and I (more my sister, really, I wasn't that interested in dolls) would have been thrilled to create a curly-haired, brown-skinned mini-me. (My Twinn, which started in 1993, also makes custom dolls.)
The new American Girl catalog has a page called "Special Sparkle," featuring accessories for dolls: The usual fare you might find for Barbie, like boots and sunglasses, but also a wheelchair. A hearing aid. An allergy-free lunch with a medical bracelet and EpiPen. It's so great that a kid with a hearing aid or a kid with severe food allergies can hear that same whisper from the universe: We recognize that you exist. Plus, placing the hearing aid and wheelchair right on the same page alongside boots, eyeglasses and a hairbrush normalizes these disabilities. Whether or not a a little girl is deaf, she gets to see a hearing aid not as some strange, foreign object, but one of many possible accessories a kid can have. Just being exposed to things like wheelchairs and allergy-free lunches can be a teachable moment, making a child who doesn't need those things accept and understand that some people do.
That said, I can't help but wonder if there are downsides to this ultra-customization. Does it put too much emphasis on the individual? Is it all connected to this new selfishness, the kind of parenting that insists every child is a special snowflake, worthy of praise just for existing? If it's important to teach kids about deafness, why not mass-manufacture a doll that comes with a hearing aid? It seems like, with the original history-oriented American Girl Dolls, the doll was a time-machine friend, the book taught a lesson, and you didn't have to be black to learn from Addy, the girl who escapes slavery during the Civil War. Josefina, who lives on a New Mexican rancho in 1824, is not just for Latinas. You don't have to understand the Great Depression to love Kit Kittredge. Apparently the custom dolls are a big money-maker for the company. Does that mean there's less interest in exploring different cultures? In discovering that girls who look dissimilar on the outside can feel the same way on the inside, no matter the decade or continent? Would kids benefit more from looking at someone different than from looking in a mirror?