Some of us have never heard of an “American Girl” doll. Those who have, know that Mattel, an age-old toymaker familiar for its Barbie and Ken dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Matchbox cars, also know that the American Girl doll series is both culturally diverse and educational. Originally, the product line focused on teaching girls about American History from the perspective of a girl living during a specific time period in history – the doll’s apparel and look representing the same.
All told, with several iterations of more contemporary dolls (American Girl of Today in 1995, Just Like You in 2006, My American Girl in 2010, and Truly Me in 2015), there have been 66 different dolls over the years – each with a different combination of facial features, skin tone, eye and hair color, and hair texture and style.
For the first time in its history (31 years), the makers of American Girl have offered a boy doll – Logan Everett. Great idea, right?
What experts in gender studies note, however, is that the company’s launch of Logan is a missed opportunity, if just “normalizing” a boy doll to the mass market. Rather than just responding to consumer demand for a male equivalent to American Girl, Mattel didn’t follow the same strategy in producing boys dolls as they did girl dolls.
The original American Girl dolls provided girls with compelling role models, in contrast to the “image” obsession of the Barbie doll. The historic figures faced real challenges – for example, the “Addy Walker” doll was born into slavery. Accessories were also available for dolls with disabilities – hearing aids and wheelchairs, for example.
The Logan Everett doll, noted Mattel, is actually marketed to girls and not boys at all. No opportunities for diversity and role modeling. Failure to recognize that boys can play with dolls, too, without being teased or bullied.
Psychologists note that gender roles are solidified early – by age 5, boys “act” masculine for external approval. By age 8 (the age recommended by Mattel on the Logan Everett toy box), boys are well past the “socially acceptable” age of doll play. Gender norms would dictate that boys playing with dolls should 1) never have started in the first place, and 2) certainly be done by the age of 8.
Dolls may seem trivial, but they can play a significant role in identity and family formation, research notes, and the makers of Wonder Crew have come out with 4 multiracial dolls with outfits for a range of occupations. Company CEO (and psychotherapist) explains that the mission of the company is to show how boys learn social-emotional skills through doll play – demonstrating that “real strength and fun isn’t about toughness and weapons. It’s about friendship and creativity.” The company tagline is “Boys have feelings. It’s time for toys to catch up.”
The power of toys in breaking stereotypes can be significant – especially toys that help children learn that emotions, empathy, and nurturing are traits that aren’t just for girls. (And that Legos, footballs, Power Rangers and Wonder Crew guys aren’t just for boys.) Another step in breaking stereotypes, and a major focus of our community education.