Most moms stand in one of two camps about the American Girl franchise: Either they love the dolls and all they stand for (strong, brave girls; inclusion)… or they think it’s absolutely absurd to pay $115 for a doll. After my experience with the brand—and especially after this week’s announcement of American Girl’s 2017 Girl of the Year—I’m definitely in the former camp.
My first exposure to American Girl was, like most girls in the early 90s, through the catalogs. I was too old to play with dolls when my younger sister and I began receiving the catalog in the mail, but I loved looking at the beautiful life-like dolls and their exquisite outfits and accessories. And I loved, loved, loved their stories. An avid reader, I pored through the original girls’ (Samantha, Molly, Kirsten) bios, each reflective of a specific decade in American history. I was moved by the inner strength each girl exuded and how proud each girl was of her heritage.
I didn’t really start paying a ton of attention to the dolls again until 20+ years later when my parents got an American Girl doll for my daughter Maya’s fifth birthday last year. Naya, as she named her doll, is a Truly Me doll—she looks like my daughter—fair skin, blue eyes, long blond hair. My daughter loves to brush her hair, dress her up, and read to her. Naya has been her gateway to the world of American Girl, and when she’s a little older and can read the BeForever stories on her own, I’d love to get her Rebecca Rubin, a Jewish girl growing up in 1914. I think she’ll love another doll she can identify with—this time, a girl who doesn’t look like her, but shares her faith.
In the meantime, I’d been considering getting her another doll for her seventh birthday, but I wanted to see who the new 2017 Girl of the Year (GOTY) would be first. Each year since 2001, American Girl has released a special edition doll, called the Girl of the Year. The GOTY has her own story, clothing line, scenes, accessories, etc.—and she’s typically only available for the calendar year. She’s a much-anticipated arrival, as you can tell from her regular annual debut on “Good Morning America.“
American Girl fans have long criticized the brand for offering its Truly Me and historical dolls of color… but for not yet having designed a Girl of the Year who was black. (In fact, the last time a non-white GOTY was released was Kanani in 2011). In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement exploded and racial tensions flared, I genuinely hoped the brand would step up to the plate for its 2017 doll.
Indeed, for the very first time, American Girl’s 2017 Girl of the Year is an African-American girl: Gabriela McBride, a dancer and poet from Philadelphia who has used her art form to help overcome her challenge with stuttering. From what I’ve read, she’s also on a mission to save her community arts center from closing—three cheers for activism and grassroots community organizing! I think my daughter—who has friends of all different races and ethnicities—as well as millions of other little girls will adore Gabriela and can learn a lot from her.
In these uncertain times when our country feels deeply polarized, it’s refreshing to see a major brand that embraces diversity and inclusion and can do it so honestly—through the eyes of children. While some may argue a black Girl of the Year is long overdue, I am thrilled Gabriela is here… right now. In many respects, we need her.
While I don’t pretend to think a simple doll will end racism, I do think steps like this are steps in the right direction toward planting the seeds of open-mindedness.
We aren’t all alike, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. My children are half-Hispanic and Jewish, and I believe in celebrating our differences as we teach our kids about tolerance, respect, and caring for one another. If a doll can help do that as little girls all over the world learn Gabriela’s story and about her life experiences, more power to her!