Sorry for getting deep on you all of a sudden but… this topic comes up a lot, and I feel like I end up writing the same thing every time it does (or, more often, forgetting part of what I want to say), so I’m taking the time to lay down my opinions on the topic. For once, I am going to try to be as concise as possible and outline my thoughts. Feel free to ignore if you are only here to revel in Kit-Kat’s greatness. OF COURSE, KIT-KAT, this is by far not as interesting as you are!! How could I ever think otherwise…
My “Qualifications”: By no means am I the expert, or do I believe I have the only right opinion on this topic! However, I do want you to know that I am approaching this topic with personal and limited professional experience in the social justice and medical fields.
- I grew up with a few illnesses and minor physical disabilities, so I am coming to this topic from that perspective.
- I don’t consider myself actively involved in disability culture, but I do follow blogs that focus on fighting ableism, as well as general disability/illness blogs such as Rockstar Ronan. I participate a little in a small community for a disease I had.
- I have a bachelor’s in English which includes study of literary theory… much of which intersects with social justice theory.
- I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the stereotypes of childhood leukemia patients in modern popular literature.
- I am currently a medical student.
What AG has Done Right
- Multiple stories in AG magazine featuring real girls with disabilities and illnesses. Some of these articles focused on having the girl explain her disability/illness to other girls, in kind-of a “what I wish people understood” vein (some of those even included tips for how to treat girls with disabilities/illnesses). Others were about the girls’ other accomplishments, and the girls just happened to have disabilities.
- A limited selection of dolls without hair are available for order through the Doll Hospital.
- Many disability/illness-related accessories are now available for your modern dolls, including a wheelchair, allergy-free lunch, service dog, hearing aid, and more.
Why I Would Like to See a Disabled/Sick GOTY
- The Girl of the Year is the “face” of American Girl dolls for the year. She is also the only modern doll who has a storyline, including books and a movie. A girl with a disability has never been featured as the Girl of the Year - a doll/character who has much more visibility than the MyAGs and accessories noted above.
- Representation is good for girls with disabilities because it can make them feel less different or alone. If there is a doll like you, you might feel reassured having a “friend” who understands what you are going through whether that is through having the physical doll, reading her books or watching her movie.
- Representation is also good for girls WITHOUT DISABILITIES because it normalizes and humanizes girls WITH disabilities. While these girls might not know a girl with a disability IRL, they might read about her story or have a doll with a disability. This could encourage empathy towards girls/people with disabilities and help them to understand that while those girls may be different in one way, they are really just normal girls like anyone else.
Ideal Presentation: The Girl Who “Happens to Have” a Disability
- Focusing only on a person’s disability or illness is demeaning. People with disabilities have goals, interests, hobbies, clothing style, personalities, etc., etc. just like everyone else. They are more than their disability/illness. To define them by that is limiting.
- Even positive stereotypes such as the “angelic cancer kid” are demeaning because they don’t allow room for character/personality development outside of the character/person’s disease.
- Making the GOTY storyline about something other than the girl’s disability/illness (or making that just one of several ongoing plots) would avoid a demeaning portrayal of people with disabilities, as above. Instead this strategy would help create a full, non-stereotypical character, which (especially because AG is such a big/influential company) in turn contributes to a positive cultural representation of real girls with disabilities.
- Many have speculated that the Cecile/Marie-Grace collection has not performed well in part due to a large part of their storyline focusing on the yellow fever epidemic. Giving a GOTY with a disability/illness another big theme such as dance, horses, etc. (rather than focusing only on her disability/illness) would help sales, in my opinion. This would a) allow for more opportunities for outfits and accessories that are proven “big sellers” and b) perhaps make her appeal to a wider audience beyond girls who have disabilities or know others with them. (So, therefore, I don’t really think there should be a GOTY with cancer. When you are going through chemo, that’s a HUGE chunk of your life. So I think the story would probably by nature focus largely on that, and I’d personally rather see a story that doesn’t focus on the disability/illness as much - and I think that type of story would sell a lot better, too.)
- I use my dolls as an escape and I want them to live in a world where there is no sadness.Great! The thing is though, for many girls with disabilities, their disabilities are “normal” for them. The disability is just part of their everyday life, not something especially sad or limiting. (I once wrote a page-long list of reasons I was Not Worried About Having Surgery for my elementary-school best friend, who could not comprehend why I didn’t feel sorry for myself.) Nobody is saying you have to buy this doll for your collection! However, girls with disabilities might want a doll who is “just like them”, or maybe a doll who’s a friend who can help them through tough times. Also, there are many girls and collectors out there whose dolls live in a more “realistic” world.
- I have a disability/illness and I don’t want a doll like me/wouldn’t have wanted one as a kid. That’s totally valid and I imagine there are a lot of people like you! In which case, you could always choose not to buy a doll with a disability. But there are also people who want to see a GOTY with a disability, and if AG could find a way to market the doll to the masses (vs. a niche disability market) I don’t see any reason not to have one? (ETA: But basically, I can’t argue with your feelings or experience, so this choice would depend on how large the market would actually be.)
- Stories about disabled people always reduce them to their disability. While this does tend to be the norm (I wrote my thesis about that!), it doesn’t have to be. There’s no rule that says you always have to write to the trend. AG has a decent track record of handling sensitive topics well. They have won awards for their books tackling topics such as slavery, bullying, puberty (the original Care and Keeping of You - has since been re-written and re-released this year), and more. In my opinion, they would be capable of doing the research and finding an author who could write a “real” story of a girl with a disability, whose character is not defined by that disability. Furthermore, they have the example of a few children’s/teen books that have had a more well-rounded take on disability/illness lately such as: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene, The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco, and (slightly older) the Casson Family series by Hilary McKay.
- Controversy in the media!!111! These are valid concerns, due to AG’s history with Marisol, Girl’s Inc., and Gwen the “$100 Homeless Doll”. (For more information on those, I recommend checking out one of the many AG message boards.) Most of these concerns revolve around a) choosing one disability/illness over another, b) representing the disability/illness “wrong”, and c) making money off of people’s IRL suffering. Personally, I don’t think a lot of people in the disabled community would really get that upset about “a”. I think most people (in general) are reasonable and would understand that AG is not going to be able to represent every disease/disability on the planet even if they tried, and that their best strategy would be to pick something common so the doll represents as many real girls as possible. I think this would largely be a slow-news-day type of controversy. For “b”, my advice to AG would be to 1) avoid disabilities/diseases with current associated controversies (such as autism) and 2) pick something relatively common (i.e. recognizable by the general public) and that you could describe vaguely and/or simply. For example, in McKenna’s books, she has a friend Josie who is in a wheelchair. The book doesn’t really get into Josie’s specific injury (I believe it says she was in an accident). While this might skimp a little on realistic details, I think keeping it simple and vague like that could help AG avoid controversy from people becoming upset that they didn’t portray a certain disability or disease “right”, because they aren’t striving to portray something specific. (I don’t think their goal should be a super detailed story about the disability… they’re a toy company after all. IMO, leave that to independent authors who don’t have to write with the goal of helping to sell a doll.) With regards to both “b” and “c” I think focusing mostly on the girl’s other attributes (rather than her disability) could help with both of those concerns since there’d simply be less to go on (then again, people could always say they “brushed off” the girl’s disability! So some detail! LOL)… but I don’t know that “c” would be all that avoidable. The key would be to keep it from blowing up, somehow.
- The idea of girls “playing disability” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Play is how children learn to process the world. They can work through what they encountered in their own lives or imagine what it is like to be someone else. Able-bodied girls might develop empathy for girls with disabilities by playing with a beloved doll who has a disability. Personally, I’d rather see kids playing with a doll with a disability, maybe get it a little “wrong” - but then not be afraid to talk to a new girl in their class who uses a wheelchair.