Sunday, September 27, 2020

Dolls And Representation: When We Do (And Don’t) Need Toys To Look Like Us

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Loryn Stonehttp://www.nerdbot.com
Loryn Stone has dedicated her life to the written Word of the Nerd. Her writing has also been published on other pop culture websites such as Cracked, LoadScreen, PopLurker, and Temple of Geek. Her debut young-adult novel "My Starlight" (a contemporary love letter to fandom, friendship, anime, cosplaying, love, and loss) is out now by Affinity Rainbow Publications. When she's not writing, Loryn's other interests include collecting robots (Megazords, specifically), playing bass, and blasting metal.

Luciana Vega Doll Spacesuit

Creative and Confident With A Serious Science Streak; Explore Luciana’s love of SPACE and SCIENCE.

A new American Girl doll has arrived and she is rocking her assertive agency right in your face. Luciana is so perfectly modern (and important) that she’s worth taking note of.

I write this in a completely serious and non-patronizing voice; Luciana is the coolest girl in the world. She’s creative. She’s confident. She loves science. She’s an astronaut. 

And she has a robotic dog.

American Girl Luciana's Robotic Dog

Honestly, the rest of us are just screwed. How can any other toy stack up after this? But it leads me to ask something– so, if the representation is perfect and inclusive, as Luciana is a smart, strong, creative, confident, science loving girl of color (it’s the elephant in the room that I’ll address), does this automatically change or affect the child who is playing with her?

Let me reiterate; this doll is a great thing. We need representation in all forms of media, and that goes right down to the dolls children play with. Note I say ‘children’ and not girls. Children of all shapes, colors, and creed deserve the opportunity to see a doll that resembles themselves. If that opportunity is presented, they can then seek comfort in that item that resembles them, or they can choose another avenue which is choosing a play thing which closer identifies with something they want to be. 

It reminds me of the design reasoning behind the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line from when I saw the MOTU episode of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us. One of the designers was really into Charles Atlas and “strong men” competitions and wanted to create a doll that was “a real he-man” and not some wimpy old noodle-dude. The same reasoning can probably be assigned to G.I. Joe– tough cool guys, ready to fight.

Now, some children might see these embellished, bulky toys and say “I want to be that”. Some might not look twice, it’s the name of the toy they want because they saw the commercials and therefore need to have it. With other kids, it doesn’t matter what the toy looks like; they have a story in their head and need something, anything to act it out with. (That was me). Some children have probably looked at Barbie and said “She’s perfect and I need to strive to become that.” Others have said “She’s so delightfully cartoonish, no one could ever be this way. I’m going to play my game and move on with myself.” Other kids say “Well, I don’t have enough dolls/figures of this sex and gender, so therefore this doll is now the boy/girl.”

Or if you’re like me, you play quietly in your head with Crayola markers and they’re your dolls now, but you should probably be listening to the teacher.

The point I’m trying to make is this– does having a doll who is preemptively awesome affect the child who is playing with it? Do children have the ability to, on their own, assign these strong and clearly very important characteristics to their toys…or do they need American Girl to tell them that “You should want to be more like Luciana because she’s smart, creative, artistic, confident, and by the way, she likes science”?

I’m sure countless hours of market research goes into these topics; I’m not so smug that I’m going to pretend I have the answers. Clearly, advertising works on everybody. Even if you think you’re above the norm and nothing in pop culture affects you, surprise– I bet you got excited when Arby’s gave Naruto the nod or something. We all have something that gets us there. Maybe you thought Geico’s Cavemen were funny, or you have a shirt with the Kool-Aid man on it. Ironic or literal, we can all be swayed and influenced somehow.

Perhaps some of us DO need to be told how amazing we can be. Maybe some children need to be told that confidence exists in order to glean some of it for themselves, to absorb it from dolls and non-living sources because they’re not nurtured into knowing how special they are. They need someone to help them believe. And if a beautiful doll packaged to resemble a girl is the one who can do it…then I can only wish she was around to help others when I was young, too.

“With creativity, confidence, and a serious science streak, I can launch my dream of landing on Mars. But my teamwork skills still need work. I’ll have to learn how to reach others if I want to reach the stars.” – Luciana from the American Girls website.

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