The American Girl franchise just got a little bit more inclusive.
Or rather, the soulless zombie corpse of the American Girl franchise that remains after Barbie owner Mattel purchased The Pleasant Company in 1998 just got a little bit more inclusive. The company announced this week that they’ll be introducing their first Korean-American doll: Suzie Yang, or “Z,” who spends her time filming and vlogging.
Z has her own YouTube series where her fans can check out her filmmaking ideas, and she has an Amazon special in the works.
Z arrives at a point when the American Girl franchise is working hard to retain the last strains of its wholesome image as a toy moms could feel good about buying their kids, one the company largely jettisoned when it turned away from its original focus on teaching girls history. Now facing criticism for its largely white lineup, American Girl is creating an increasingly diverse collection of dolls — but it continues to pour its resources into the contemporary collection, leaving the historical dolls that were once central to the brand as little more than nostalgic relics.
Z is the latest entry in the American Girl franchise’s ongoing rebranding
Since purchasing American Girl in 1998, Mattel has systematically gutted the educational historical line that used to be the heart of the brand. Starting in 2008, Mattel apparently decided that it was not profitable to teach little girls about history and archived many of the historical dolls the brand launched with in 1986, including headstrong Victorian aristocrat and social activist Samantha, who introduced a generation of little girls to the concept of labor rights.
Many of the archived historical dolls would eventually reemerge in the rebranded BeForever line, but the accompanying stories and accessories have changed: They no longer explain the different times that the dolls lived in, but instead explain how girls have always been just the same, throughout history. (To add insult to injury, Samantha’s new wardrobe is pink, even though everyone knows her alpha bitch power color is red.) In the meantime, the company has turned its focus to its contemporary dolls, like Mia St. Clair, who dreams of being a figure skater and — uniquely — has freckles on top of her nose instead of just on either side of it.
But American Girl’s growing pains aren’t limited to its fraught relationship with its historical past. The company has also come under fire in the past for its endless array of cheerful white dolls, with few options in which children of color might recognize themselves. That was the case in the pre-Mattel days, too — the first nonwhite doll was 1993’s Addy, who came seven years into the franchise’s history — but it was a problem that became increasingly glaring in the ’00s, as discussions of representation and its relationship to children’s toys became more prevalent in the culture.
So over the past few years, American Girl has doubled down on its efforts to represent children of different cultural backgrounds and experiences. The 2017 Girl of the Year was Gabriela McBride, a black girl who stutters, and 2016 saw the release of Melody, a new historical African-American doll who lives in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the 2016 WellieWisher line of smaller dolls for younger children includes Emerson (Asian, loves to dance), Kendall (black, friendly), and Ashlyn (ethnically ambiguous, into princesses).
And earlier this year, Mattel made the radical step of introducing a doll for what is perhaps the most underrepresented demographic in American popular culture: white men who look vaguely like the bad boyfriend who gets dumped at the end of a Taylor Swift video circa 2008.
This recent strategy of focusing on diversity has been a profitable one for Mattel, which saw sales of American Girl dolls jump 14 percent in 2016. It committed to a similar strategy with Barbie, introducing multiracial dolls with multiple body types, and saw a 16 percent sales jump there as well.
Mattel, like most companies, goes where the money takes it, and what it has found is this: It’s profitable to make sure your kids’ toys represent a wide range of races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds. But it is not, apparently, profitable to use your kids’ toys to explore history or social issues. That’s for boring school time.
But regardless of all the changes the American Girl line has gone through, one thing remains constant: They are still expensive enough to make parents weep. Z will set you back $115, and that’s without any of the accessories.