If the grown-up world mirrored the reality of children and their dolls, we all just might be a little more tolerant.
When American Girl Dolls hit the market in 1986, the focus was on American History and how little girls lived during various eras of our nation’s development. But over the years, the company has expanded the types of dolls it manufactures. In the 1990s, a customizable American Girl was created, and it was a hit: Little girls want dolls they can relate to, that look like them. And the customization is getting more specific: In July, pressured in part by a competing Barbie Doll from Mattel, American Girl started manufacturing bald dolls for children suffering from hair loss.
For the 2012 holiday season, the doll-maker added some more niche accessories to its list, including an American Girl hearing aid, and, for those dolls with food-sensitivities, an American Girl Allergy-Free Lunch. The lunch comes complete with a medical bracelet and a fake EpiPen shot, “just in case.”
It’s so great that a kid with a hearing aid or a kid with severe food allergies can hear that same whisper from the universe: We recognize that you exist. Plus, placing the hearing aid and wheelchair right on the same page alongside boots, eyeglasses and a hairbrush normalizes these disabilities. Whether or not a little girl is deaf, she gets to see a hearing aid not as some strange, foreign object, but one of many possible accessories a kid can have. Just being exposed to things like wheelchairs and allergy-free lunches can be a teachable moment, making a child who doesn’t need those things accept and understand that some people do.
American Girl isn’t the first to capitalize on dolls that normalize various disabilities. Both My Twin and Build-A-Bear Workshop, competing toy-makers, also offer toy hearing aids.
As one parent writes in an Amazon review of a toy hearing aid, “My daughter just celebrated her first year wearing a hearing aid… and it is so refreshing that one of the doll companies makes real-life accessories that focus on differently-abled children. I am teaching my child to embrace what makes her unique and celebrate it…”
Not all of American Girl’s attempts to up the diversity of its dolls have been without controversy, though. In 2005, the company released a Mexican-American doll named “Marisol Luna” whose tale involved growing up in a dangerous Chicago neighborhood named “Pilsen” then fleeing to the suburbs. The problem? Pilsen is a real Chicago neighborhood, and Hispanics there were none too happy with their corporate branding.