American Girl, Stories, and Representations of Disability

I hadn’t planned on blogging today, other than to reveal the cover for Mira’s Miracle and hint at a contest I’ll run in celebration of its release. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for those details.

However, I saw a video and a petition, and I changed my mind. Over a year ago, I wrote a call to action decrying the over-representation of white characters in spanking fiction. We had a great discussion, but I was surprised at how many people felt that representation was an option, a privilege, or a luxury to be enjoyed when all other needs had been met. Some of the responses I have heard since then include, “I’m white, so why shouldn’t I write white characters?” Another common refrain is, “I want fantasy, and I don’t want to be bothered with issues of race or representation or equality.”

I wrote:

There is a false idea that all writers are white and all readers are straight and white, or that if there are writers/readers of other variations that they don’t really matter.

I support KT Grant’s Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event (click for daily posts here) because women need to see strong female characters who aren’t dependent on men for identity and happiness. Lesbian or not, women deserve our own stories. Diverse women deserve our own stories. For KT’s inaugural post, I wrote:

For me, all social action begins with a story. I write for a paycheck (don’t we all?), but I also write to change minds. When we have alternate stories to challenge the mainstream myths that prompt inappropriate questions and comments, we broaden the discussions of what it means to meet and love another person. Why do we assume that M/F is normal and F/F is squicky? What if we lived in a world where the order were reversed?

We need and deserve stories of women, of diverse women, and of women who live complete and fulfilled lives beyond pining for the perfect man.

(click here for the entire post)

I believe that stories change lives, and that as an author my primary tool in effecting social change is to tell a good story.

Then I came across Melissa Shang’s petition, and I took my hat off to this 10-year-old child who is working for the same social change. She wants a doll that looks like her, and she wants one of the biggest doll companies in the US, American Girl, to create a Doll of the Year that has a disability.

No matter what criticisms we might make of American Girl as a company or the expensive nature of their products, American Girl has become one of the primary storytellers of girls’ experiences in the US. Each year, a new doll is launched with a set of books that tells a story of what it means to be an American Girl (a loaded term, for sure!)

We can argue the pitfalls of consumerism, expectations, entitlement, or whatever objections we might have, but what it boils down to is this:

Melissa wants a doll and a story who look like her.

Don’t we all?

I signed Melissa’s petition, and I hope that you will, too.

Please sign Melissa Shang’s petition here.

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41 thoughts on “American Girl, Stories, and Representations of Disability

  1. Missy says:

    Wow what an incredible little girl. I signed her petition πŸ™‚

    It’s difficult to keep a balance when writing stories or representing any product, to involve all people from all walks of life. I certainly appreciate that there are writers out there writing stories about different scenarios, but I also understand that people usually write about what’s real for them. So a white person with white characters, men from a men’s point of view and woman from there’s, an when it comes to sexual orientation, I can imagine it could be hard to write about feelings and emotions, which you as a person can’t relate to. As much as I have no problem with homosexuality, and will say some of my very close friends have been gay men and my best friend through university was a lesbian, I couldn’t express a sexual feeling through their eyes ( believe me, we had some very interesting conversation about this at university ).

    But with dolls, and toys, I find it’s very important for children to find a connection. Growing up, I was amazed at the first black barbie, and a big wow and my biggest wish was when a male baby doll with all the right parts was “born”. This little girl has a big point in what she says. Kids with disabilities need to be represented more in toys, as much as stories and films πŸ™‚

    Ok I know I talk way too much lol

    Hugs x

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      You never talk too much! πŸ™‚

      You make a great point. It can be insulting or even offensive (the official word is “appropriation”) to try to speak for another. I agree that it is a problem. However, I think we can be open in many other ways. Do we read books that will challenge us? Do we listen to people who aren’t exactly like us? Do we make friends and invite people to our homes who don’t look like us? Do we assume we can understand, or do we acknowledge that we can learn from everyone?

      I absolutely agree with what you say, both about the dolls/stories/films and about stretching ourselves.

      Talk “too much” any time! πŸ˜€

      Like

      • Missy says:

        I have this conversation many times with my children and also friends and neighbours. We live in a very small village where most of these people have never ventured further than their own door step. It’s sad really, they have a very low tolerance level for anything they don’t know, from simple food to ways of living.

        I try to bring my children up to understand the diversity of this world. I teach them about different cultures ( through foreign holidays, books and educational films) about religion, encourage them to try foods of all places ( though that one is very hard and main food round here is pasta) to also acceptance of others views and lifestyle choices. I have even on a mad ” you are very spoilt and don’t know how privileged you are” rage took them to a shelter for the homeless and let them see what the real world is like.

        I think this world needs changing and people need educating. When the grown ups have no tolerance an are ignorant, how can the children learn??

        this is a topic I feel very strongly about πŸ™‚ sorry for hijacking your post πŸ™‚

        Like

  2. Leigh Smith says:

    I think people write what they know. I know I do. Other than physical appearance, I don’t know enough about other cultures, backgrounds, disabilities, things that make up a person. It would be quite possible I may offend them by giving them characteristics that are foreign to them. I could do more harm than good.

    That aside, I will sign the petition. Good for her. I know when I worked with children when I was in Social Services, I always championed all inclusive, whether it be race or disability, always making sure whatever we provided included the tools and toys for children to understand the full spectrum of real life.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      You’re right, Sunny. People write what they know…so perhaps the question should be why we don’t expand what we know. I speak for all of us, no matter what our background might be. That was the magic of the Advent Calendar, that people could come together from any walk of life and still be welcomed and respected. I’d like to create more spaces like that.

      And perhaps how we create these spaces is to support those who speak up, like this little girl. I hope Melissa is successful.

      Like

  3. Joelle Casteel says:

    What a nicely complex post, Ana. I signed the petition after I saw where you’d shared it. Those issues of social justice and representation are sure complex- reminds me to sign up for the Spanking Romance Reviews round table :D. I do think about it a lot. More of my characters are white because I am white- I understand their experiences more. I have been careful in how I include characters of other races to make a complex character, someone who isn’t just their race. I’ve also done this in writing about sexual orientation. Like in the intros I wrote for my SatSpanks and SeductiveSnS’ snippets this weekend. Especially with those who don’t understand BDSM from a practical position, it can be easy to misunderstand the flowing paths of my characters’ sexuality, who interact as kinky people, as queer people, as polyamorous people, and finally just as people in love :D.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I agree with you. Token representations are not the answer, nor are caricatures. Why is the receptionist or subordinate African American, the domestic help Latina, or the the doctor Asian? Why are they one-dimensional characters without a full story of their own?

      I think it’s great that you work to expand definitions in your writing. πŸ™‚

      Like

  4. terpsichore says:

    I agree that people write what they know from experience or what they fantasize about. Writing from a different perspective may not feel authentic or translate true for others. I also agree that expanding what you know and being open to learning from one another and being open to differences is a good thing and to be encouraged for everyone. I love what this little girl is doing and am inspired by her willingness to share her voice. Thank-you for sharing so we can be a part of her story and hopefully make her dream come true.

    Like

  5. Terry says:

    I followed your link to sign Melissa’s petition to have an American Girl of the Year with a disability. She deserves a chance to let other children with disabilities know that they are not alone and to let children without disabilities know that we all have a special story to tell.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      The last I saw, she was up to 86K signatures and had reset the goal to 150K. I hope she gets it. πŸ™‚

      We do have a special story to tell, every single one of us. I hope we get to hear more of those stories.

      Like

  6. SH says:

    What a great post Ana! I signed Melissa’s petition, what a courageous, beautiful girl she is πŸ™‚

    It really touched my heart as a mother of a special needs child.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      What impressed me was such a small girl speaking with such clarity. It’s so simple, isn’t it? Yet we try to cloud the issue with complications and distraction. I hope that your child gets to be represented and to find stories of children who live similar lives. We all long for it, no matter what our age.

      Like

  7. catrouble says:

    Hey Ana…Even though I have a huge problem with American Girl dolls (do they really need to be that expensive?)…I really admire Melissa’s determination and agree that she and other children with disabilities deserve the right to have dolls that reflect them. They also deserve to have stories written about them.

    I agree with some of the others above that people write what they know. Writers can research to include diverse characters just as they research to write about different societies, centuries, etc. but in my opinion, writing ‘background’ is different that writing a character.

    I know…I’m not making a lot of sense here…and of course, I am definitely not a writer! Bottom line…I would like to see more good writers of different backgrounds. The better the writer, the more likely they are to pull me in to the story. πŸ˜€ Okay shutting up now…

    Hugs and Blessings…
    Cat

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      You said it in a nutshell, Cat. We don’t need more writers writing ABOUT diverse characters, we need more diverse writers. πŸ™‚ Good writers, as you say. Hey, look at Miss Going to Read Your First Ageplay! Hehe.

      I think AG has its issues just as any big corporation has its issues. Still, this petition is less about consumerism than it is about the right to be represented. Things like finding hair products or cosmetics or whatever might be needed, that’s not a privilege–it’s a necessity for many. For many little girls, having a doll who looks like them is taken without any second thought. I want every little girl to have that opportunity. And at 10, wow!! Pretty amazing.

      Like

  8. Angel says:

    I totally agree I signed the petition and I will not buy anymore American Girl doll stuff Until they fix this (I have 2 girls under 11 years old) This is so like the big fight last month over what color santa claus was and it drove me crazy!!!!! I have always felt that he was what ever color you are I wish we could see they way small children do They do not see color or diffrences they see playmates and Friends Who is to say how I live is the correct way to live who is to say what you do is the correct way to do things Why does it have to be one size fits all I think this would be a very sad sad places to live if everyone walked talked worked and looked a like Those are just my thoughts and feelings

    Like

  9. Roz says:

    Hi Ana, wow, what an amazing little girl. Thank you for sharing this. Great post and very well said. Of course, I am not a writer but I would tend to agree with comments above that writers tend to write from their own backgrounds and what they know. We need more diversity among writers perhaps.

    Hugs,
    Roz

    Like

  10. octoberwoman says:

    I don’t usually sign online petitions, as I don’t think signing something online ever really helps a cause, though in this day and age that’s probably becoming less and less true. Anyway, I did sign this one, and I shared it on Facebook and told my friends to sign it also.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Maybe it won’t help, but in this case the number of signatures did get attention. Even if AG doesn’t change, I hope it has sparked discussions and the possibility for change. I just saw it was at nearly 100K signatures now…wow! Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

      Like

  11. Leah says:

    I applaud Melissa for speaking up for herself so clearly. She specifically asks for a Girl of the Year with a disability. I think it’s worth noting that Am Girl does already show in the catalog dolls in a wheelchair and dolls with hearing aids.

    I used to think they were ridiculous toys, but my daughter, at 10, will still play with hers occasionally. It’s refreshing to find something marketed to girls that’s not oversexed. A lot of their books help address pre-teen issues in a healthy way.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I agree about the wheelchair. I like it a lot, but it’s not a doll with her own story. That’s what Melissa wants, and I agree with her. I like that you can request a doll without hair (for those with cancer or without hair for other reasons).

      I was a fan of AG before the dolls came out–way back when the books were all you could get. The stories are lovely. πŸ™‚

      Like

  12. Blue Bird says:

    My nieces are not blonde haired and blue eyed. There have been times I have searched store after store, looking for a doll to represent their beauty. I signed that petition this morning when I read it. Thanks Ana!

    Like

  13. minellesbreath says:

    Signing.
    It is true that at first we speak from our own perspective, but opening our hearts and minds to others points of view is how change happens. Everyone should have a story that can represent them. I believe it is hard enough having challenges in this world. Recently I watched as the pain of words and a dismissive attitude wounded a lovely young teen. How powerful would it be to validate young people if they saw real images of themselves, navigating successfully through life?
    I remember that you said that often times you purposely refrained from describing characteristics that were limiting. Ie race..etc… You wanted everyone to place themselves in your story…That has stayed with me.

    Like

  14. Ruth Staunton says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. I wasn’t aware of it until now. This is so close to my heart. I was/am that kid. Like her, I use a wheelchair and have all my life. None of my dolls ever looked like me, a short, brunettte kid in a wheelchair. She’s amazing. This kid has self-awareness and advocacy skills that I wasn’t even aware of until college,

    I have a love/hate relationship with characters with disabilities. I adore when someone writes them well. The thing is, they are rarely written well. Authors tend to either make people miraculously recover or make it too big a deal and do the whole ‘poor pitiful me’ thing, and I hate that.

    At the same time, I rarely write them myself. It just hits too close to home. I have 1 fanfiction story for NCIS with a disabled character and even then I had to use a male character with a different disability. And he’s still a pain in the @$$ to write :-). Interestingly, it’s my most followed and reviewed story.

    Like

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