American Girl Dolls, Barbie, Navel-Gazing, and You.

GirlsThe Atlantic posted this excellent piece on the de-radicalization of the American Girl line and I spotted it earlier today. These dolls, or the “Historical Dolls” as they are now called, were a big part of my child hood. The new catalog was an epic event, the announcement of a new doll was rare and treasured, and the pages of historically accurate costumes and props were a treat – particularly for those of us none-too excited by the glitter-spatted tees and stretchy jeans of the Limited Too market.

I remember the day they announced that Pleasant Company, the brand that made the American Girls, was being purchased by Mattel. I was 12, and at Girl Scout camp with a cadre of girls going hiking, caving and climbing in addition tot he crafting, singing and flag-etiquette performing we did on a daily basis. I remember the news clipping someone had gotten in a letter from home being passed around in the hands of angry kids who would now be termed tweens by marketing experts. I remember livid little girls, not pitching tantrums or crying, but truly angry that the stories they loved and the characters they cherished were going to be lost to them.

The thing that sticks out to me now is that even then we knew what the buy out would mean for the future of the company. We knew the pink-aisle barons would be interested in making our treasured friends and their stories fit their glitter-boxed world.

And we knew we didn’t want it.

I was a lucky kid – I owned American Girl Dolls. I loved the historically accurate furniture and clothing, I loved that the dolls had feet that they could almost stand on and round faces and hands with real-looking fingers. I found the shaping of the upper thigh strange and the way it connected to the body kind of strange, but that was always under the clothes, so it didn’t matter.

A few months ago I clicked a link form a childhood friend of mine to the American Girl site, only to see for the first time that my dolls were now being “archived” and would no longer be available for sale. I had a minor G-Chat freak out with my boyfriend from my desk at work, and he said the way I felt about the Mattelification of my dolls was how he felt about the MichaelBayification of Transformers – and I grappled with his sadness for the first time in a real, empathic way.

Reading that piece from The Atlantic this morning I got my first real look at the company since the buy out. The dolls now being made and sold tell a story about modern girls having problems that the market for these dolls might identify with – buying organic food, being part of an arts program fundraiser, focusing on grades and extracurricular activities, etc. These girls are reading about themselves, or the versions of themselves that Mattel is producing for them.

Addy was separated from family she loved and had to work for her own survival and her mother’s in the Civil War era. Molly faced growing up in WWII, with rationing, a British housemate in her family home, and a father away at war. Kristin faced the wilderness of the pioneers, Felicity the buds of the American Revolution, and Samantha the widening disparity of a class system leaving the poor to suffer and die. They had to grapple with problems of their world, while the modern girls grapple with the problems modern adults advise them to focus on, or believe they are  preoccupied with. The kind of problems you’d expect to see in Facebook updates and artfully folded notes in study hall.

The American Girl Dolls in their original state taught more than history and a love for beautiful artifacts. They taught their readers and owners that  11 year old girls were part of the larger world, and that larger conflicts in history were part of their stories. They taught us to pay attention to the world, because there were lessons there and friends there and ways we could make our country a better one. They taught us to speak when something needed to be said, to dedicate ourselves to purposes beyond our own lives. And they taught this through the lens of girls not unlike ourselves – girls who were young and brave and curious, but also scared and angry and sometimes jealous (Molly’s love for curly hair rings a bell).

If anything, it appears that a modern American Girl teaches us that a young girl’s conflicts pertain to her grades and activities, her immediate surroundings and her family. They teach us about all the navel-gazing, self-focused internal struggles of the modern 11 year old, as perceived and communicated by a modern adult. They lack the distance from history that would allow an author to write a story where a girl engages with it, and we lack the existence of girls who have grown up in the period to tell their stories! Instead of challenging girls to engage with the times when we are uncertain of the future, these stories prescribe good behavior and expectations an adult would have of child in the modern era, thoughtfully preparing them for a future we have no concept of.

The original dolls had personal problems too – but they met with history and engaged with it. And they were awesome at it. And I’ll miss them.

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2 thoughts on “American Girl Dolls, Barbie, Navel-Gazing, and You.

  1. Basically, the American Girl dolls used to educational and cool, now they are just boring proponents of popular culture. Sad.

  2. Pingback: The De-Radicalization of American Girl Dolls : The Cultural Gutter

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