I don’t remember how it started. One day, my daughters were wholly unaware of the existence of American Girl, and the next, they were debating which $100 doll they wanted. Overnight, American Girl fever gripped my house.
I can’t blame my daughters. I remember when I first encountered the American Girl dolls, as a teenager babysitting for the lucky 6-year-old who owned the brand-new Samantha and Kirsten dolls, which at that time were mail-order only, before Mattel bought out Pleasant Rowland’s business. I had never seen such dolls. Even as a 17-year-old (who had never been into dolls, really), I loved to page through the American Girl catalog.
The offerings–and the marketing hype–have expanded dramatically since those early American Girl days. There are now more than a dozen historic dolls (compared to the original 3), and they all have their clothes, books, furniture and accessories.
There is much to love about American Girl dolls. Their bodies are realistic. (Do you remember hearing that Barbie doesn’t have enough body fat to menstruate? No worries on that account with American Girl.) The dolls’ historical settings are interesting and educational. And they’re very well-made.
My girls love the books that come with each historical character. My 6-year-old leapt from the Bob Books to the American Girl books because she was determined to read the dolls’ stories. The local library has a dedicated American Girl rack, so we’re never without a half-dozen American Girl books in the house.
We own one bona-fide American Girl doll–Felicity, who resides in Williamsburg, circa 1776. My 6-year-old has toted her everywhere, dressed her, fed her, read bedtime stories to her, and slept beside her. She’s sewn Felicity new clothes, and made her furniture out of sticks and cardboard boxes.
There’s a lot I love about the American Girl dolls, and the stories they’re so deliberately placed in. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, hated (hated!) the Disney Princesses, but she had largely good things to say about American Girl: “Reading the books, though, I was struck by their presentation of the past as a time not only in which girls were improbably independent, feisty, and apparently without constraint but, in a certain way, in which they were more free than they are today: a time when their character mattered more than their clothing, when a girl’s actions were more important than how she looked or what she owned–a time before girlhood was consumed and defined by consumerism.”
And yet, there’s a lot that makes me uncomfortable about American Girl.
For starters, there’s the price tag. A new American Girl doll is $100, and that’s before you do the clothes, accessories, furniture, books and matching doll-girl outfits. Peggy Orenstein notes the irony: “the simplicity of American Girl is expensive.” Indeed it is.
Then there’s the branding. I hate the idea of my little girl being pitched. She loves to read the books and flip through the catalog–but she does this not just as a little girl who loves her doll, but as a marketing target. (That’s why the catalog gets parked on my bookshelf and not hers.) For every scene in every book, there’s a $48 outfit to bring it to life. And some really expensive furniture to go with it.
I forget why my little girl decided that she wanted Felicity instead of Molly, or Kit, or Samantha. But I remember the day she regretted that decision. We’d brought “Meet Samantha” home from the library, and daughter noticed that of all the dolls, Samantha was the only one described as “a beauty” on her book jacket. By 6-year-old logic (and I swear I didn’t teach her this stuff), beautiful is best, and she wished she’d gotten Samantha instead of Felicity (who’s described as “a spunky colonial girl”). The phase was short-lived, but it unsettled me.
And then there are the stories!
There’s a lot of admirable pluck and spunk going on in these stories, but there are also a lot of ugly sibling relationships. Brothers come off especially badly: in the American Girl books, brothers are nothing but trouble (unless they’re babies, then they’re allowed to be “cute”). Packaging Girlhood puts it well: “As troublesome, mischievous pests, [boys] are set up in opposition to showcase the niceness of the girls….It gives the message that boys can’t be deep and loyal friends to girls.” This is hardly what I want to teach my daughters about the opposite sex.
I love the American Girl dolls. And I hate them. I wish I had it easy, and could wholeheartedly endorse these dolls–and their messages. Instead, they’re providing my family with an opportunity to teach our girls to think critically.
And that may serve my daughters best in the long run.
Readers–what do you think about American Girl? Did you have an American Girl doll? Does your daughter? Share your thoughts and experiences in comments!