Last week, the deluxe doll company American Girl made a historic announcement: For the first time since its founding in 1986, the brand would release a boy doll with his own clothing, accessories and backstory. The doll, named Logan Everett, went on sale one week ago and was received enthusiastically by loyal customers. Like the other 18-inch dolls, Logan and his default outfit sell for $115, with a $68 drum set available for purchase. Jarring price tag aside, the availability of a boy American Girl doll marks a subtle yet powerful feminist victory and a personal cause for celebration.
Anyone who interacted with me between 2003 and 2007 would know that American Girl dolls were a defining feature of my childhood. Growing up with substantial privilege, I had the good fortune to receive either a doll or a handful of new outfits every year for Chanukah. By third grade, I had acquired four of the dolls from the signature Historical Characters collection: Josefina Montoya, a New Mexican girl whose stories are set in 1824; Kit Kittredge, who grows up during the Great Depression; Nellie O’Malley, who lives in a New York City settlement house; and Molly McIntire, whose childhood is set against the backdrop of World War II. Every time I unwrapped a new doll or opened one of their books, I welcomed a relatable role model into my world. The American Girl dolls are independent, adventurous characters that face not only the challenges of the eras they grow up in, but also the universal vagaries of being an elementary school-aged girl.
The historical identities of American Girl dolls gave them a special appeal, especially when compared to my Barbies and baby dolls. Reading the girls’ accompanying book series provided a window into different time periods and sparked my love of history. American Girls even took center stage in my Common App essay; I wrote about my Saturday morning ritual of assembling them into a congregation and conducting Shabbat services, which “helped me channel my own experiences into something meaningful for others” and “nourished my early eagerness to lead,” to quote myself circa Aug. 2015.
Even though I enjoyed and valued the dolls, I always had a few ideas for how American Girl might expand its offerings and better serve loyal customers like myself. I never hesitated to pass on my recommendations to them. When I was in kindergarten, a friend and I wrote to suggest that the company create a Jewish doll, but received a response politely explaining that they could not act on our request at the time. (Tragically, it took until 2010 for American Girl to release Rebecca Rubin, whose Russian Jewish immigrant family lives in New York in the 1910s. I am not sure whether I am more resentful that Rebecca came out three years after my American Girl obsession had subsided or that no one thought to give me any credit for the suggestion.)
Years after I had last picked up an American Girl doll, I found myself writing to the company again. When I happened to notice that Amazon.com included “boys’” and “girls’” as subcategories in its “toys and games” section, and subsequently emailed their customer service department to request that they eliminate these labels, my dad asked why I did not also denounce American Girl for sexism in catering to only one gender. He doubted that I would be so quick to condemn the toy brand that played such an integral role in my childhood; nevertheless, within a few days, I had drafted yet another letter to American Girl. After expressing gratitude for the entertainment and inspiration that the dolls had brought to my life, I claimed that boys would also benefit from toys that double as meaningful, relatable role models. I lauded the company for manufacturing dolls that emphasize diversity and complexity of identity rather than traditional beauty norms, then pointed out that the company’s next step to spur societal change through children’s play should be to dismantle gender stereotypes. Again, American Girl replied that my suggestion was not in their economic interests at this time. Am I bitter that American Girl once again failed to recognize my input? Only slightly – I am too busy celebrating the strides towards equality that their new doll represents.
For me, feminism is all about autonomous decision-making that’s free from the pressure of gender norms. I believe that we will have achieved gender equality when being a stay-at-home parent is just as common for fathers as for mothers, when parents of both genders are equally willing to prioritize their career or their family at a given point in life. Achieving this goal depends on an overall shift in culture, starting with childhood play. Just as girls are less inclined to want racecars or science toys when all of the children in the advertisements are boys, categorizing dolls as “girls’ toys” makes parents less inclined to buy them as gifts for their sons. When toys that foster caring capabilities are less accessible to boys, we reinforce the societal perception that boys are less nurturing. These damaging stereotypes that perpetuate outdated gender roles have consequences beyond family life. While we lament that blue-collar industrial jobs – traditionally held by men – are losing out to automation, there are abundant vacancies in nursing and other stereotypically feminine occupations. If boys were to grow up playing with dolls, there would be less stigma surrounding traditionally female-dominated careers, and men would feel more comfortable filling these positions. It’s a stretch to suggest that dolls for boys will solve the 21st century’s economic woes, but combating gender stereotypes and addressing the changing labor market certainly go hand in hand.
American Girl’s move towards equality in children’s play exemplifies the type of small yet meaningful strides that it will take to eradicate gender norms and the setbacks they pose. Toys are crucial to cultivating children’s interests and understanding of themselves. Making dolls more relatable to boys will instill a wider range of capacities and character traits, breaking down the damaging and limiting notions of traditional masculinity. And on a personal level, given the influence of American Girl dolls in my life – from childhood games to historical inquiry to college admissions – it is heartwarming to think about a broader set of children enjoying the relatable, inspiring dolls with whom I credit much of my identity today.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.