Jilly Bing founder Elenor Mak and her daughter Jillian play with the Jilly Bing doll.

Finally, Asian American Dolls Take Center Stage

Move aside, Barbie—these pioneering AA+PI doll creators show there's room for more than one look on the shelves

Jilly Bing founder Elenor Mak and her daughter Jillian play with the Jilly Bing doll.

Courtesy of Jilly Bing

Words by Xintian Wang

When Elenor Mak held a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll given by her parents on her birthday, she was thrilled. As the only child in a newly emigrated family from China to New York, Mak knew that this doll would become her beloved companion during rides to Chinese school and dim sum outings on weekends. Slowly, however, Mak began to feel that the doll’s Caucasian features were beautiful in a way that she could never be.

Like every Asian girl living in the fabric of American society, Mak also wondered why there weren’t any dolls that looked like her in the malls. Three decades have passed, and Mak, now a mother, continues to see a dearth of Asian representation in the doll aisle—that is, until recently, as Mak and a number of other innovators have embarked on a mission to change the status quo.

The toy industry has long advocated for a more diverse range of dolls. A 2023 industry survey by IBIS World found that 68 percent of parents actively seek out toys that feature characters from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Eleanor Mak says the toy industry, as well as media companies, need a refresh that is more than checking a box, which led her to found Jilly Bing.

Courtesy of Jilly Bing

Each year, iconic toy brand American Girl introduces a fresh doll, each with a unique narrative centered around confronting contemporary obstacles. This collection, aptly named "American Girl's Girl of the Year," is designed to share stories that resonate with the experiences of today's young girls. In 2022, a year after the tragic Atlanta spa shooting targeted towards the AA+PI community and the escalating wave of anti-Asian violence due to the pandemic, the Girl of the Year doll was unveiled as Corinne Tan, the first American Girl doll of Chinese descent.

Corinne’s narrative, crafted by author Wendy Shang, told the story of how a Chinese American girl living in Aspen, Colorado, navigates the complexities of her mother's remarriage following her parents' divorce. The narrative further delves into Corinne's exploration of her Chinese heritage, a journey that becomes particularly significant in light of the rising anti-Asian hate crimes. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic, Corinne has to learn “how to stand up to racist bullies,” according to the website, including when a boy tells her she has “Kung Flu,” a racist characterization of COVID-19 used by former President Donald J. Trump.

Corinne's experiences echo the broader societal shifts. In a recent survey published by a nonprofit organization dedicated to AA+PI businesses named Committee of 100, nearly three out of four respondents had experienced racial discrimination or racism-related vigilance in the past 12 months. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, anti-Asian hate crimes saw a staggering increase of 73 percent in 2020. During the period spanning from March 19, 2020, to June 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, a nationwide coalition dedicated to documenting racially motivated incidents associated with the pandemic, received a total of 9,081 incident reports.

Jilly Bing founder Elenor Mak’s daughter Jillian plays with the Jilly Bing doll.

Courtesy of Jilly Bing

Even in the seemingly innocent realm of the toy industry, racism can be manifested in invisible ways. Within the expansive assortment of about 60 dolls American Girl offers, only six, Corinne included, have embodied characters of Asian descent, according to a spokesperson at American Girl who spoke with The New York Times in 2022. It's worth noting that the company had previously made the decision to discontinue its only Chinese American doll, Ivy Ling, in 2014, and this decision enraged many customers.

Like every new mom who is looking to buy meaningful toys for her children, Mak, now 43, did not find hope in American Girl’s Corinne in 2022. She found the doll’s story “mystifying” and “elaborate.”

“Many toy makers, American Girl among them, seem to have used an existing brunette doll with round eyes, added some eyeliner to draw ‘Asian eyes’ and called it a day,” says Mak. “Dolls are among the first toys that children receive, and yetas we speed toward 2024, ‘Asian American’ dolls look nothing like Asian children.”

This disappointment propelled Mak to launch Jilly Bing, a doll that looks like her daughter Jillian, which she announced in December 2022 and brought to market this August. She has already sold more than 2,000 dolls. Mak shares that she often found the so-called “Asian dolls” cartoony-looking or dressed in very traditional clothing that does not reflect today’s Asian American children, so she created Jilly Bing to be the changemaker that does more than just check a box.

Each Jilly Bing doll is paired with a beloved food that corresponds to a specific Asian ethnicity, such as Chinese egg tarts.

Courtesy of Jilly Bing

According to Mak, every Jilly Bing doll is paired with a beloved food that corresponds to a specific Asian ethnicity (for instance, Jilly's fondness for egg tarts!). This narrative not only adds a charming layer to these dolls’ backstory but also provides customers with a way to honor the richness and diversity inherent in every AA+PI celebration.

“Asian Americans represent around 7.2 percent of the U.S. population today. Yet, based on the extensive research I conducted as we set out to create Jilly Bing, I would argue that Asian Americans are largely invisible in the $40 billion toy market,” says Mak.

Mak isn’t the only person who has identified a gap in the toy market. Samantha Ong, founded Joeydolls in November 2020 to reshape the monolithic narrative often associated with Asian Americans. Joeydolls is a set of six culturally diverse Asian dolls, featuring a Chinese doll, a Filipina doll, a Vietnamese doll, a Japanese doll, an Indian doll, and a Korean doll. Ong revealed that the preorders just started this May and have been going out to select retailers across Canada and the United States this week. Most customers will receive their dolls this November.

Samantha Ong and her collection of Joeydolls.

Courtesy of Joeydolls

“I want to celebrate the richness and diversity of Asian cultures by offering dolls that authentically resonate with a broad spectrum of identities and backgrounds,” says Ong. “These representation efforts hold an even deeper significance amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic and the concerning rise in anti-Asian hate incidents. They serve as a counterbalance, reaffirming the identities of Asian American children and fostering cross-cultural empathy from diverse backgrounds.”

With the much-hyped Barbie movie echoing diverse representations in the toy industry these days, critics are thinking about whether the production has truly gone far enough. Some say that the movie still appears to revolve around the conventional depiction of Barbie as the iconic tall, slender, blonde figure. The movie's backdrop remains entrenched in a world primarily focused on white women, with the diverse characters often relegated to secondary roles, serving as mere support.

“The toy industry needs a refresh, as do media companies that are creating content for children,” says Mak. “It often feels as though they are checking off boxes. We will no longer accept always being depicted as the sidekick character, an afterthought, or a stereotypical depiction of the nerdy math geek or demure girl. In light of the surge in Asian hate crimes since the pandemic, I think it’s more important than ever that we let our kids feel confident and normalize Asian features and cultures.”

Still, in an era marked by the challenges of the pandemic and the concerning rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, the emergence of AA+PI dolls highlights the toy industry's evolving response to societal changes, creating an environment where children from all backgrounds can celebrate diversity and embrace their own identities.

Joeydolls feature dolls representing China, Philippines, India, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Courtesy of Joeydolls

Published on October 17, 2023

Words by Xintian Wang

Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.