An Open Letter to American Girl
For three years, our lives have been consumed by American Girl. Our oldest daughter, Madison, is eleven. When she was eight years old she discovered the American Girl doll and just “had to have one.” That year, Santa obliged. After Santa bought the girl of the year, Grace (2015), a whole new world opened for our daughter and she discovered the clothes, accessories, pets, and everything else that came along with owning an American Girl doll. Even after spending thousands of dollars (combined with her grandparents and aunt) on American Girl products for Madison, I still wasn’t phased. After all, when I was her age I was fortunate enough to have two American Girl dolls myself and we approved of the message your company was spreading; love yourself, be kind, include everyone, stand up to bullies, etc.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to understand and appreciate the value our family once put in the American Girl company and how we genuinely respected the message you were sending to girls world-wide; at least until we realized that when it comes to Down syndrome, the American Girl organization is having a difficult time being inclusive.
Madison’s younger sister, Charlotte “Charlie,” is fascinated by Madison’s American Girl doll. She wants one for herself. Madison has asked me time and time again why American Girl has dolls in wheelchairs or with arm crutches but they don’t have the option to buy a doll with Down syndrome. “I don’t know,” I’ve told her. “Maybe they just haven’t met the right person with the right story,” I’ve said. This isn’t true but I don’t have the heart to tell her that the company doesn’t see the value in adding a doll that looks like her sister just yet.
Several people have reached out to your company with the hope that you would look at their children or their family members and see that individuals with Down syndrome are people too and that they deserve the chance to be represented as well. Every time, American Girl responds with the same generic message,
“We are extremely proud of the wide range of dolls and accessories we currently have available that speak to diversity and inclusion, and we remain deeply committed to exploring and expanding in this important area where and when we can. Please know American Girl is continually striving to maintain its positive reputation for inclusiveness. The requests we receive for a character with Down syndrome (as well as hundreds of others) are very important to us. We consider it a huge compliment that we have so many people who want us to create a character and story that represents them. While we cannot say when, or if, a doll with Down syndrome will be added to our doll collections, we will certainly share your interest with the appropriate teams at AG. We know we have many, many stories yet to tell!”
This response was given to me in January 2019 via social media, to Courtney Baker in July 2017 via email, Kate Manduca in January 2018 via email, Zina Robertson in December 2018 via email..the list of people who have received this same generic response from American Girl in regards to creating a doll who has Down syndrome is long and heart breaking.
People sending your company messages and pleas through email or social media isn’t even the end of the Down syndrome communities attempt to be heard. Beth Scott, who’s daughter Amelia, has Down syndrome, reached out six and a half years ago when Amelia asked for an AG doll for her birthday and refused to play with it after noticing the doll didn’t have features like hers. She was upset that her cousin was able to pick out a doll that looked similar to her but Amelia could not. Beth has sent a letter every year since, trying to persuade your company to listen to the value in making a doll with Down syndrome features and each time, she’s turned away and responded to with hesitancy. Because her voice wasn’t being heard by your company, she started a petition on Change.org; “American Girl in partnership with Mattel will not make a doll with Down Syndrome!” (You can view the petition here.) So far 22,531 thousand people have signed this petition in support of Beth and the Down syndrome community and the support doesn’t end there. Toy companies, senators, Down syndrome organizations, and the founder of Huggabear Children’s Project have also reached out to your company voicing their support for Amelia and a doll with Down syndrome.
How does constantly being turned away make us feel? Kate Manduca said that after receiving a generic response from your company she felt,
“...sad, angry and slighted. I felt like it was just a pat-on-the-back response to a quiet mother who wants nothing more than to have a doll that looks similar to my beautiful daughter with Down syndrome. I know that American Girl tries to bring inclusivity to their products by showcasing models with Down syndrome and adding items to their product line such as glasses, crutches, etc., but what an amazing day it would be for our community to work with American Girl to produce a beautiful doll with almond shaped eyes (and other features) to truly show they embrace difference, acceptance and inclusion!”
(You can view Kate’s full letter here.)
Courtney Baker’s reaction was similar while also appreciative that your company included those with disabilities in your advertisements.
“As a mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, I value inclusion in advertising, and this model was a beacon. I am so grateful that you listened to me and countless other mothers who have reached out to you. The main reason I was given for why you wouldn’t want to create a doll with Down syndrome is the fear that the doll’s features could possibly be offensive to the parents of children with Ds. I understand your resistance in our world today. But the more I’ve seen my friends share their desire to see an American Girl with Ds, the more I’ve realized that you don’t need to worry about offending our community because we don’t find our children’s features offensive….If creating a suitable doll is the biggest issue, I can assure you that if you work in collaboration with organizations like Save Down Syndrome or Changing the Face of Beauty and with other mothers of children with Ds, you will have the perfect doll.”
(You can view Courtney’s full letter here.)
Michelle Hill noticed when your company included a child with Down syndrome in your advertising and was ecstatic, stating:
“You include a child with Down Syndrome! I hope you truly embrace the impact that made on our community! It was HUGE. It was another success in our community. So, THANK YOU for doing that.”
But when it comes to her six year old daughter, Allison, she is still hopeful that American Girl will make a doll that resembles her.
“I browse your website, I have been in the store, I still receive the magazine. The first thing I see is a doll in a wheel chair, a doll with crutches, dolls with different skin tones. These dolls are unique to kids. When parents take their children to the store – they get to choose what they want and enjoy. We as parents, just want our children to be able to choose a doll that is unique to them as well…I pray you choose to include a doll with Down syndrome in your collection so that my daughter can experience the same happiness with your products that so many other children do.”
While we understand that if American Girl chose to make a theme girl with Down syndrome they would have to make theme girls for every other disability, we are simply asking for American Girl to have the option of creating a doll with Down syndrome features for those individuals who want to purchase one. It would be the same as clicking the option for glasses or freckles; Low epicanthal fold on the eyes? Check. Low nose bridge? Yes please. We also appreciate the fact that getting these features correct is extremely important and sometimes a difficult task. There are many young children with Down syndrome who would love to be a model for the company, my daughter included, not as a theme doll, but for the sake of getting these prominent features correct.
American Girl has created numerous books to help young girls in their daily lives. “The Girls Guide To Liking Herself, Even On The Bad Days,” “Stand Up For Yourself and Your Friends,” and “The Feelings Book” are just a few. All of these books your company has published are full of positivity and help girls throughout the world.
The sisters, mothers, friends, and supporters of the Down syndrome community are listening to your messages and are standing up for themselves, their daughters, sons, family members and friends and asking you to please change your response and work with us on making our hope for a doll with Down syndrome a reality.
Lindsay Robertson and the Down syndrome community