Every year, American Girl fans anticipate the next American Girl Girl of the Year, the new annual modern doll that has come out since the beginning of the 21st Century. She usually comes with her own collection and set of books. What makes these dolls different from the historical dolls are that they reflect modern girls. The modern stories tend to lack the depth and length that the historical stories have.
In January 2014, American Girl disappointed many fans with Isabelle, an inspiring dancer. She was very uninteresting to most folks. 1) Girl of the year 2005 was a dancer. 2) Isabelle was another boring blonde in pink. It’s not that American Girl is crawling with blondes. It was just too predictable. Fans were hoping for something a little more original. To add, her features weren’t very unique. She didn’t have short hair or a ponytail or pigtails. She was marketed in an unoriginal way. Everything about her reminded everyone of another doll released in American Girl. I’ve heard comparisons to Kailey, Julie, Lanie…Which can’t be helped. Sometimes, American Girl has to repeat itself. But did she have to wear pink and dance? No.
Read my article: Do Blonde dolls sell better?
Many people are pushing for variety in the Girl of the Year line. A lot of people asked for an African American character. American Girl just now decided to create one in 2017.
Out of all of the dolls that have been released in the last 10 years, not one has been of African American descent. People were hoping that 2015 would be the year. Yet, there were many others who doubted American Girl would even try, including myself.
The question is: Why has Mattel waited so long to create a modern African American character? To put it honestly, black dolls don’t sell as well as the other dolls in the American Girl historical/Beforever collection. Even if you mosey on over to americangirl.com, enter into the “Shop” page, go under the “Bookstore” section, scroll down to “Historical Fiction”, and look at the word “Sort” and scroll down to “Most Popular”, Addy’s books are not even listed on the first two pages. At one time, when the other American Girl dolls were around (Kirsten, Molly, Felicity, Marie-Grace, and the Best Friend dolls), Addy was even further behind. Since those girls have been archived, Addy’s listings are higher in the books section. Still, the American Girl historical dolls sell low as it is. The minorities fall behind.
Go under the “Furniture” section. Addy’s bed is among the last of the Beforever listed. Addy is even among the last when you go under the “Dolls” section on the “Shop” page. Scroll all the way down to the “Dolls for ages 8+” on the bottom left-hand side. Go to “Sort” by “Most Popular”. You can clearly see that all of the Beforever dolls are popular at the moment, BUT the minorities are among the least popular in the collection. Imagine if Molly and Felicity were around!
Many argue that this just doesn’t apply to African American dolls, but Asian and Hispanic/Latino dolls in the Beforever line as well. None of the minorities are on the first two pages of the “Historical Fiction” section. The first two pages consist of white girls. There are Caucasian girls listed on the back pages, but the only Caucasians on the back pages are the ones that are Archived. All of the minorities are right before them. Kaya, Rebecca, and Josefina sadly have even lower listings than Addy. And this is just for books, which are prices cheaper than the dolls.
American Girl has sold more than 147 million books since 1986. They have only sold a fraction of that number when it comes to dolls, 25 million to be exact, in that same amount of time. And Addy is not topping either list. Being at the bottom of the book list carries a different tone than the doll list, where they’ve sold less. So where does Addy’s world fit into both stats? You do the math.
Since the Historical/Beforever collection is the “heart” of the brand, it is the main factor when American Girl Company is deciding what will sell or not.
This does not apply to the My American Girl line, where the black girls sell pretty well. More on this later…
The Beforever line seems to have the hardest time.
There could be two reasons for this:
1) American Girl Beforever does not appeal to African American children or households.
2) American Girl Beforever is too expensive, and minority families are less willing to pay the price for dolls.
3) The “majority” doesn’t connect with the minority enough to help support them.
As an African American myself, I have to say that, growing up, the first two points really struck my household as true. I was introduced to American Girl at a young age in the 1990’s. Back then, the prices were lower, but we still didn’t want to invest in these dolls. I got two dolls, and that was it. When I got older, I extended my collection. Most people I talk to that are of my same ethnicity say the same thing: “I am not spending that kind of money for a doll. My child will be fine with a Disney doll”.
Price is one thing, but the appeal of American Girl is not catching on to the African American community, either.
The reasons vary. They are not all related, either.
One reason is that the few American Girls that are black and a part of American Girl have provided stereotypical versions of African Americans for years. While Addy, the 1864 slave girl, exposes young black girls to a real part of African American history, some African Americans took offense during the time when she was the only African American represented (back in the 1990’s when she was the only black doll). Many African Americans wanted to be known for more than being uneducated slaves. They felt it was a hurtful and poor reminder of the oppression and segregation experienced by black people. “Like, why does the black girl have to be the slave?” They were ashamed of this. Other races are afraid to invest in Addy because her stories deal with racial issues so heavily. So, Addy was controversial since debut. Since African Americans didn’t take off with Addy, many didn’t follow the brand through. Many are just now hearing about the new doll, Cecile, the wealthy girl of color, and Melody, the Civil Rights Era doll because they only remember the brand when it had Addy, the slave girl.
I will say this is the same with Kaya. I get so many Native American people telling me they hate Kaya because she falls into stereotypes, though she represents a real part of their history and ACTUAL culture! It was the same with Ivy.
The truth is, as proud as people are of their personal heritage, many people want to be defined and labeled by something other than their ethnicity. They are struggling to find an American identity in this modern world, where race is no longer something that can define a person’s successes or failures as much as it used to. While people would be offended if their races weren’t represented, people would equally be angry if that doll was stereotypical in nature! And then people would be contradictory and end up offended if the doll wasn’t realistic or true to the culture at all! Even with Cecile, there were still black people who thought Cecile was glossing over the struggles of black people! Addy was too harsh, and Cecile wasn’t harsh enough!
Read More about that here: American Girl Black History Month
With so many divisions, this divides the money as well. Thus, the sale of the doll depends on how well she is executed. Most companies don’t want to take this risk. Thus, they risk less by omitting an ethnicity altogether.
The main reason why divisions occur inside an ethnicity could be because there are not ENOUGH ethnic dolls to represent a diverse group of people. Even black people are multi-faceted. There are millions of white dolls to represent the diverse viewpoints and personalities of various Caucasian people. With only one or two black dolls, black people are forced to connect with one of the two dolls based on skin or culture, even if the dolls are marketed in a way that doesn’t connect necessarily with every black girl’s personality or interests. If there were more black dolls, sales of minority dolls would increase, as people would begin to recognize the company as being diverse in their collection of “black personalities”.
This is very evident when we see the success of the Bratz dolls. The Latin/Hispanic/Jewish dolls sell far more than the blonde and white dolls. There are many diverse Latin/Hispanic characters to choose from, thus the sales of the Hispanic dolls have increased, and they continue to make more. Even Clawdeen and her whole ware-wolf family from Monster High, relatively dark-skinned dolls, are some of the best sold in the line next to the brunette Draculaura. Why hasn’t this success translated to American Girl?
American Girl struggles to connect with the diversity within one ethnicity. For instance, Addy is smart and family-oriented. A black girl who doesn’t like school or isn’t family-oriented would not connect with her. I connect with Addy because her skin is like mine, but as a writer, I can’t help but be drawn to Kit more. Black girls are not marketed in a way that reveals more than the color of their skin. Diversity brings more diverse customers. This goes for all of the other ethnic dolls. In order to find a middle ground, market researchers would have to dig deep and find out just what appeals to most ethnic children. However, many researchers would rather take the easy route. Many people just end up buying a My American Girl doll anyway, where children can make her into anything they want.
A second reason for the poor sales could be the way these ethnic minorities are marketed. The modern dolls sell more than the historical dolls as it is, but even within the historical line, the 20th Century girls sell better than the 18th and 19th Century girls. All of the Caucasian dolls sold within the 18th and 19th Centuries have been discontinued (Felicity, Caroline, Kirsten, Marie-Grace, Elizabeth). But most of the ethnic minorities have dolls that represent the unpopular centuries (Kaya, Josefina, Addy). Though dolls from the 20th Century have been discontinued, one (Samantha) has been brought back, and no one would be shocked if the other ones from the 20th Century came back. Therefore, it would be more advantageous for dolls of color to represent eras that existed in the 20th Century. This is why there was a push for a Civil Rights Era doll of color. Sure, you can argue that Ivy was from the 20th Century, and no, she wasn’t successful. But then again, she was just a “side-kick” doll without a collection all her own or a full book series.
American Girl also needs to take better care of the minority characters they produce. American Girl should give their next wealthy girl of color or their Asian doll a complete collection all to herself. They had the opportunity to make so many glamorous accessories and playsets for their last wealthy girl of color. Did they take advantage of it? No. They had the opportunity to make their 1970’s girl Asian. Did they? No.
In the modern Girl of the Year collection, American Girl just recently added Gabriela McBride. We can’t determine her success until the end of the year. But the ethnic dolls that have existed have been Marisol, Jess, Sonali, and Kanani. Jess and Sonali did not sell well. Marisol and Kanani did. I should say Kanani sold better than Isabelle.
Let’s observe the two dolls that didn’t sell well versus the ones who did.
Jess was not marketed in girlish, glittery colors like Marisol and Kanani, neither was Jess’s story appealing to little girls, though it was my favorite. It was also not a huge collection. But for once, Jess was recognized as the daughter of archaeologists, not the Japanese girl (though she is bi-racial)! And yet, people were still disappointed she didn’t have any items representing her heritage…
Sonali was a best friend doll. She represented a girl who was originally a snob and became a friend. Of course she wouldn’t be appealing! She had no story collection and was not the main character of the movie. She was also a side-kick doll, like Ivy. She only came with one outfit.
So, those two dolls didn’t sell well. But the other two dolls did…
Marisol was a dancer, which is appealing to little girls, and ballet is especially appealing. That’s why American Girl thought they could do it again.
Kanani was just stylish overall. She also had a summertime collection that could bust out the lively colors and outdoor accessories and playsets.
Four dolls, four different results, and different marketing approaches. But one thing is certain: We can’t determine the outcome of the sale of a doll that hasn’t been tried yet. We can only deduce how the company will handle it based on the execution of their other dolls. So far, the chances of success are there if the company tries hard enough. It’s difficult, but not impossible. They have had at least two dolls of color fair well in GOTY.
There are other examples of American Girl’s success with dolls of color. If we go on American Girl.com, mosey on over to the “Shop” section, click the “My American Girl” link, “search the dolls by item” number, which is the same as pressing the “Start the Fun” button, you will see a list of dolls. At the top, you can sort that list in any way you want, but one selection is by popularity. The top three most popular dolls include a dark-skinned doll! In fact, the first page has two dark-skinned dolls and one medium-skinned doll listed! These three dolls are very popular, so American Girl is selling some darker dolls very well. They are modern. If they do what they did for these dolls, perhaps they could sell more.
If they gave the ethnic minority girls more appealing collections, lovable personalities, a movie wouldn’t hurt, and friendlier stories, girls (and their parents) would cave and buy them, just like they did with Marisol and Kanani.
On the same token, if the people themselves accept the doll, and she represents both the historical aspect and a modern aspect, perhaps both sides of an ethnic division could easily support the doll.
The newest Girl of the Year 2017, Gabriela McBride, may be just the doll to bring that flavor.
I still think American Girl should at least try its hand at producing more African American characters. If it doesn’t work, at least they will have the satisfaction of knowing they tried. Really, it doesn’t seem to improve much from having a blonde character. American Girl’s market share spiraled down 10% in 2014. Isabelle is the least sold GOTY, and she is blonde and pink! People are looking for change, and I think now is the time to give it. Even Lea couldn’t sell out in 2016.
My overall conclusion: The only reason the Beforever dolls sell poorly is because of representation, execution, and poor marketing. The black dolls in the My American Girl line sell better than the black dolls in the Beforever line.Therefore, the likelihood that a modern black girl could sell well is higher than if she’s in the Beforever line.
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think? What are your predictions for future GOTYs?
Read my other article: Do blonde dolls sell better?