Sheila Raghavendran

‘black-ish’ characters search for relatable American Girl, and I do too

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Moms and daughters buzzed around the doll store in search of the perfect mini-me. There were plenty of white options – the bonneted Cassandra, doctor Winnie, Wilma on Wheels and dozens of others. But for Bow and Diane, on a season three episode of “black-ish”, there were only two black choices: Sassy Sadie, a runaway slave, and Sassy Selma, a civil rights activist.

“With all the black history, you choose to focus on our oppression and struggle, when there are so many role models to choose from,” Bow says to a white employee at the fictional doll store GirlStory, and lists examples of those role models – such as TV producer Shonda Rhimes, ballet dancer Misty Copeland and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Frustrated that she couldn’t give Diane a doll of a black character she could aspire to be, Bow stages a protest outside the store with signs like “Black Toys Matter” and “Shonda Not Slaves”. See a clip from the episode here.

That frustration is a familiar sentiment in my family. When we were kids, my parents gave my sister and me a doll catalogue. It was for decorative dolls – not the kind you play with, but that you keep on display, and for us, to look up to. My sister found the Indian doll first: a beautiful woman in an orange sari with a red bindi on her forehead. There were no other South Asian options, so I went with a white doll. She was gorgeous, too, but it was harder for me to picture myself in her blue ball gown.

A year ago, my sister and I stopped by the American Girl store at the Easton Mall in Columbus, Ohio. We combed over the in-depth documentation of white history – Revolutionary-period Felicity Merriman, 1930’s era Kit Kittredge, the 70’s Julie Albright. We found some dolls of color, like Kaya, a Native American doll, but no one who represented our South Asian heritage. Though American Girl has made deliberate effort to increase its diversity, like with its introduction of Z Yang, a Korean-American doll in April, its choices are poor. The company also discontinued two dolls of color from its historical campaign in 2014.

American Girl released one South Asian doll, Sonali Matthews, in 2009. She was discontinued after one year because she was part of American Girl’s “Girl of the Year” limited edition series. Sonali was not the main character in 2009’s Girl of the Year – it was Chrissa Maxwell, a white doll, and Sonali was released as her “accompanying doll”. (Moreover, American Girl has had few Girls of the Year of color since beginning the campaign in 2001.)

The American Girl website boasts a “wide range of dolls—featuring light, medium, and dark skin tones, as well as a variety of face molds, eye colors, hair styles and textures, plus hundreds of accessories and stories”, but in the Chrissa book and movie, the only South Asian character doesn’t address any conflicts of being South Asian-American, and that’s a problem because it disregards our minority experience.

This is one of the pictures American Girl has on its Product Diversity page to prove its expansive choices. Sure, some of these dolls look like me (especially the second from the left on the third row) — but none of the dolls are intentionally South Asian. The doll that looks most like me is from the Truly Me campaign, which is designed to “make her unique to you”. It’s great that girls like me can find dolls that look like them, but since the Truly Me dolls are ethnically ambiguous and don’t have storylines in the American Girl brand, they don’t adequately represent South Asian girls.

As I stood in the American Girl store, unable to really connect with any of the dolls, I felt out of place. The company seemingly side-stepped South Asian-American history, skipping dolls inspired by author Jhumpa Lahiri, congresswoman Pramila Jayapal or actress Mindy Kaling.

The “black-ish” episode ends with Bow giving Diane a set of nunchucks, which she wanted, and apologizing for not being able to give her a doll that proves she can be anything she wants. Diane says she already has that proof from seeing Bow as a successful doctor.

My story is similar. I never got a South Asian doll, but that doesn’t mean I was ever short of South Asian role models. I saw my dad, an engineer; my mom, a fashion designer; my uncle, a university professor; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent; Aziz Ansari, an actor; Malala Yousafzai, an activist. Though I have yet to find a toy that tells my story, I can see myself in the real people around me, and that has always been enough.

Author: sheilaraghavendran

I agree with Ellen, let's be kind to one another.

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