Farewell, We Hardly Knew Z

They had all kinds of cool Z stuff. (Images: Me)

This is a sad post for me to write, one that I’ve been putting off for awhile.

It’s not breaking news, especially for fans of American Girl brand toys, books, and games, but American Girl (owned by Mattel) retired their Z Yang doll at the end of 2018. They also retired (their term is “archived”) the other named contemporary characters, namely Tenney, the country musician doll, and her band mate Logan, the first and only named boy doll in AG’s history. The doll for dancer Gabriela McBride, who in 2017 became the first African-American Girl of the Year, has also been retired after continuing to be available through 2018 – an unusual step for AG, which used to retire their GOTY after each calendar year. The doll for Latina aspiring astronaut Luciana Vega, 2018’s Girl of the Year, remains available in 2019, even as AG has introduced 2019’s GOTY, Blaire Wilson.

Po-Po (the late Elizabeth Sung) and Gung-Gung (Tzi Ma) cook up something deeply meaningful with Ivy Ling (Nina Lu) in American Girl’s Ivy and Julie 1976: A Happy Balance on Amazon. (Image: Prime Video)

Readers of this blog may recall how elated I was in the spring of 2017, when AG premiered an Amazon Prime Video hour-long special based on an AG book by Lisa Yee about character Ivy Ling, featuring Nina Lu as Ivy, Gwendoline Yeo as her mom, and Tzi Ma and the late Elizabeth Sung as Ivy’s grandparents. Z Yang was introduced soon afterward, and that summer, Prime also premiered a half-hour special about her, featuring Zoe Manarel as Z. Diversity was breaking out in the AG world, including the addition of African-American historical doll Melody Ellison and the multi-racial lineup of smaller Wellie Wisher dolls, which included Emerson, an Asian-American doll, and Kendall, an African-American one.

Zoe Manarel, center, as Suzie “Z” Yang in the American Girl special Summer Camp: Friends for Life on Amazon. (Image: Prime Video)

All of this took place just a few years after many of us activists had raised strong concerns to Mattel about the Ivy doll’s retirement, which at the time, left no named Asian-American dolls in any of AG’s available collections. The new characters showed that the corporation heard us and responded!

Yet now, Z has been retired, though her books, including the one by a dear friend of this blog, Jen Calonita, are still available. (Read my interview with Jen here.) I suspect that the retirement of all three named contemporary characters (Z, Tenney, and Logan) was a business decision based on sales and arising from Mattel’s significant financial losses in recent years. The corporation’s declines have included big losses for its Barbie brand as well, and all of it is reflected in several years of turnover among top executives. In fact, AG supposedly was going to bring back one of its longtime characters, World War II doll Molly, out of retirement, something that AG periodically does with its more popular characters. But though I did see one in Costco before Christmas, it seems that Molly’s reintroduction has been put on hold for now, if not canceled entirely.

Jen Calonita, who has written a zillion popular middle grade and young adult books and novels, wrote The Real Z, the first of the AG books in the Z Yang series. (Image: Jen Calonita)

Do we AAPI activists need to raise a cry again to Mattel, like we did after Ivy was retired? Not yet, I think. Last year, AG introduced an AAPI historical doll, the Hawai’ian Nanea Mitchell, whose story begins in 1941 shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her books include a story line about a Japanese-American friend whose dad is arrested by the FBI and whose family experiences a hate crime. My girls have enjoyed the books and found them to be meaningful.

The first three Nanea Mitchell books! Nanea is the newest in AG’s flagship historical series of dolls. (Images: American Girl)

But still, Z’s “archiving” is sad, even though my girls never had the doll. Jen Calonita’s book (the first of the two in the Z series) and Zoe Manarel’s portrayal, as well as Z’s stop-motion doll videos online, introduced my family to a wonderful character passionate about becoming a filmmaker.

Let us keep pressing for diverse toys, books, and videos with our voices, and supporting companies and authors who create them with our business. Because, as you and I are well aware, it’s not just a matter of economics; it’s about representation.

And as my friend Will Yu continually reminds us, #RepresentationMatters today, and always.