Emily Aguiló-Pérez on her book, An American Icon in Puerto Rico


Interview by Julia Perillo

Julia Perillo: How did you get the idea for this book?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This was based on my doctoral dissertation, and I decided to talk about Barbie as I was studying Children’s Literature and Children’s Culture. I took a Girlhood Studies class my first semester of my PhD with my advisor, and we read some of her research about Barbie. Then in another class, we also talked about Barbie. It had never occurred to me to make Barbie my subject of research, but that semester I really thought about it. I said “I think I can research Barbie because I played with Barbie for a big chunk of my childhood,” and I went with that. So throughout my PhD I then refined and thought about these questions.

There has been a lot of research about Barbie in general, but I haven’t seen a lot in Puerto Rico, where I am from. I defended my dissertation in 2016 and then, in 2018, I saw a call for book proposals for a Transnational Girlhoods series in Berghahn Books, the publisher that also publishes the Girls’ Studies Journal, and I said, let me try it, and then they can reject it, or  help make it better. And they actually loved the idea. So that’s how it came to be.

Julia Perillo: That’s so exciting, especially for me as a young academic. My next question is about the challenges that you faced. I can imagine that, saying, “I want to talk about Barbie, about girls, about playing and childhood” might have been surprising to a lot of people.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: In my academic setting, thankfully there weren’t a lot of challenges in terms of the topic itself, which, if I had done it in a different place, there might have been. People could have said: “you’re gonna research Barbie? That’s not real research.” But I was lucky that I have a very supportive committee, and especially because my advisor had researched Barbie, so in that sense I feel like it wasn’t as challenging as it may have been in a different place.

I talked about a different challenge though, when I was defending my dissertation, I think I became more Puerto Rican when I moved away from Puerto Rico. Because I lived there for 26 years, and I grew up in a little bit of a conservative family, politically.  I followed who they were and their beliefs, and so I saw the U.S. as the ultimate goal and the Savior almost. Having moved away to the U.S. and learning and reading more and doing my PhD made me more Puerto Rican. And it also educated me on a lot of the atrocities that the U.S. had done to Puerto Rico and the power imbalance between the colonizer/colonized relationships. That wasn’t really taught in schools.

So for me, that was the challenge of my own political upbringing. I became pro-independence. Puerto Rico needs to be autonomous for once in their history. I started to challenge my family. Well, my attitude was challenging for some of my participants too, I think, especially when they learned about the way that I would then read some of their responses, I had to think: here’s how they grew up, especially the older generation and how they saw the U.S. and Puerto Rico. And then I would put it in that context, while at the same time thinking about that colonized experience. So in that way, I think my own beliefs, my own experiences, and then how I read and interpreted what was going on with my participants was a challenge. I think my next question is going to be more about the feminism in the work. That’s obviously something that gets whitewashed so much in the U.S., and with the dolls particularly.

Julia Perillo: Yes, I remember going to the store, and they were all blonde and blue-eyed, and even I felt that I wasn’t represented. I’m racially white, and so I would always want one specific doll. I wanted Belle from Beauty and the Beast, because she had brown hair and brown eyes. Were there ways that you found a way to relate and to talk about identity on a very practical level, when you would go into the interviews. How did you start that sort of solidarity work?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Well, I think what helped was thinking about my position as the researcher. In interviews, especially the group ones, I was a participant as well, and I always started by saying “I use Barbie this way.” That helped, it made the participants more comfortable. They knew I wasn’t there necessarily to judge how many Barbies they had, did they hate her or not, but rather I’m curious about what women and girls experience with the doll. Then I thought I would let them talk. But I now know this was something that was hard because, when I used to listen to the transcripts, I would start thinking: “Emily, shut up!” because sometimes I wanted to share my experiences, but I also wanted to let them talk. I think I always try to make it clear that I played with the dolls, even with the younger girls that I was interviewing. Then they were showing me their dolls, and saying, “Yeah, but there’s this other doll that’s more realistic.”

I would say: “Wait, what doll? I don’t know about this!” So it was engaging with honesty and curiosity. We were able to be in person, and so they were showing me pictures. I also brought some of my stuff, and so it felt like: “oh, we’re just getting together to talk about Barbie.” I wanted to avoid the impression that: “I’m here to ask you very specific questions that there’s a right or wrong answer to, because I didn’t want anyone to feel like that.”

Julia Perillo: Right.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Even when we would talk about race and body image, I know there were some conversations when we were like, “Oh my gosh, growing up, I don’t think I paid attention to this specifically.” Or someone would say: “I knew that I wanted dolls that had dark hair, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it with that lens, but now, as an adult, clearly I was tired of dolls always being blonde with blue eyes whereas some of the girls were explicitly naming it. They would say: “Why is it? Why is it that Barbie is only white and blonde?” So they were much more articulate or aware of that issue than my generation or generations before. We might have noticed it but not necessarily analyzed it.

Julia Perillo: That makes sense. I think also when I see little kids today, I feel so old. I’m 22, so I’m not that old, but I definitely knew I wanted a brown hair, brown eyed Barbie. But I am never said: “it should look like my mom, or it should look like me.” I thought a Barbie who looks a little bit like me was good enough. My mom always says to me that I didn’t love dolls that much, now I am re-thinking that. So I want to turn to my next question: what were some of the most helpful theoretical tools in linguistic anthropology for you in framing these conversations?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Some of what inspired me was the approach to methodology, but also how I use memory work not only as a methodology but also as a way to interpret, or analyze. Except with the three girls I spoke to that were little girls at the time of the interview, everyone else was working through memories of their own childhood, and talking as adults. But mostly, when it was about their experiences of playing, it was our childhoods, which were a long time ago. I had think about what happens when we are talking about memories. It’s not necessarily about how accurate the memories are. I think there was an example of my approach in the book when I was talking with my sisters, and my aunt and my mom –we were reminding each other of things. I focused on the meaning of those memories and how they came up. So that was a very important part, because it wasn’t just part of the methodology, but also definitely part of the analysis. A lot of Girlhood Studies scholars like Angela McCoy, Katherine Driscoll, and Miriam Forman Brunell had all worked with Barbie in some way. I wanted to include some of the scholars that were women of color, because a lot of the conversations about Barbie and Girlhood Studies has been very white, predominantly white. So I had Andrew Scull as one of my very crucial sources, and then I included a little bit of Childhood Studies and Play Theory as well. When I was doing the research as a grad student, at first I wondered: am I combining too many things? But the kind of study that I wanted to do needed to have all those different perspectives. I tried to draw from different fields, and different areas, not only Barbie studies, but also girls studies, child studies, memory, women’s studies, and all that together.

I also had Latino studies to draw from, too, because I relied on Gloria Anzaldúa, and I had some Puerto Rican women’s memoirs. When I was thinking of memories and childhoods, I included their work, as well. For me, it was so important.

With a book or a dissertation, you can’t do everything that you want to do. A lot of times when you’re working with participants especially, it really depends on how many you can get. For me what I wish I could have done or I hope that I can do in the future is to have more voices of girls who are talking about how they currently play. I mainly talked to former girls. I did appreciate the fact that I ended up with an intergenerational study, but I would really love to learn more about what girls right now like! How do they interact with Barbie? Because also, I want to hear their perspectives, which is not they’re not always highlighted, but also because what I learned with the few that I talked to was that they knew a lot about Barbie, but that also Barbie wasn’t necessarily as big for them, as it was for, say, my generation, or even the generation before.

Julia Perillo: What are your best hopes for the book? What’s your craziest dream? Let’s say a 15 year old Puerto Rican girl reads the book, what do you hope she gets from it?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This is a good question, because, sadly, the way that academic publishing works, sometimes this book is an expensive book if you want the hard copy. These books are mostly marketed to libraries. My hope is that it can be more accessible. I want anyone who reads it, whether it’s an academic, or a girl, to think that it isn’t wrong or right to play with dolls. It’s a very complicated doll, even with some of the people in the States who loved the doll but also hated the doll.

It’s a very fraught, complex toy, so I would like them to think about their own experiences, and be aware of how they relate to the doll, how the doll came from some of their own ideas about body image, or about femininity. Have you thought about the fact that, like Barbie, even with attempts at adding some diversity, it’s still very predominantly a white doll? So, just getting people to think about Barbie as a complicated doll more. My hope is that I can continue this work in a perhaps more accessible way, like through a podcast. That’s one thing that I have been thinking about. I would love to invite more women and girls in Puerto Rico to share their stories about Barbie, and discuss similarities and differences in their experiences, and why these exist.