She Was an American Girl: What American Girl Dolls (Mis)taught Me About Race and Class

americangirldolls

I grew up in rural New Mexico, north of Santa Fe, an area sharply striated along race and class divisions. My quasi-hippie mom banned Barbie because she feared bad body image. American Girl dolls seemed like a healthy alternative to her—and to many other families in the 90s. They were multicultural, historical, and aligned nicely with a “progressive” education. They were the PBS of doll-dom.

When I first paged my stubby baby-fingers through the Pleasant Company catalog in the back of our Volvo, the cast was composed of Felicity Merriman, a Revolutionary War-era firecracker; Kirsten Larson, a pioneer from Sweden to Minnesota; Samantha Parkington, an Edwardian orphan raised by her mega-rich, stuffy grandmary; and Molly McIntyre, whose father is a soldier in World War II. Addy Walker, who escapes slavery and was the first non-white character, had just been launched like a token ship.

While I was still old enough to vaguely care, Josephina Montoya, from a rancho in 1820’s New Mexico, was released. All of Santa Fe was super-stoked. Not much happens there.

The classism and status anxiety embedded in American Girl dolls were integral parts of ownership, often trumping any historical or cultural knowledge gleaned. $95 (now $110) a pop was flat-out unaffordable to most of the kids in elementary school, where I was one of the only white students. I could tell precisely how rich my white friends at my after-school acting class in Santa Fe were by how many dolls and accessories they owned.

The dolls were an early lesson in personal branding. I don’t remember being particularly curious about whether friends had the colonial tea set or the mini horse and sleigh. I remember being curious about which doll was their favorite, because this would help me suss out their personalities without having to use words.[1] Already a voracious reader, I distinctly recall wanting to talk about the characters’ stories and being frustrated when the conversation inevitably segued to new acquisitions.

I had Kirsten, which meant to me that I was a sensitive loner, an outsider in another culture—that I had a “pioneering spirit.” It meant I was a nature-lover, penny-wise, Scandinavian, a people-pleaser.

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Sara had Samantha, and she had Samantha’s lustrous, glossy locks. Sara was bubbly and feminine, given to easy socialization. She was also much wealthier—see Victorian opulence. She had the tricked-out bed and three dolls. She wore makeup and pearl earrings at ten. She would’ve looked entirely at home with an Edwardian bonnet, a croquet mallet, and a lapdog named Jip.

This person has a lot of Samanthas.

Sara was allowed to watch Full House and 90210. She had a library with a rolling ladder, two hyacinth macaws, and a giant amethyst geode on the back porch that we could lie inside. She’d make sure to casually mention that it was one of the ten largest amethyst geodes in the States.

Sara’s family wasn’t rich in that Republican way—perish the thought! They were rich in that Santa Fe way: Sara had a Buddhist-Jewish mother who wore mala beads and trailed through the house in diaphanous scarves. She’d get headaches. She sent Sara to private school and packed her macrobiotic bento boxes for lunch. Perhaps some invisible laborer did. I don’t know. I don’t know what her dad did, but I’m sure it was important.

I’d flush hot and red with shame as I stammered that I only had the books, borrowed from the library, and no doll. Then some books of my own. Then one doll and no accessories. Then only one outfit. Getting a second doll for Christmas fulfilled a deeper wish: that we were flush, that my father’s business would not go under.

I got Felicity. Getting Felicity made me believe I was becoming more courageous—she tames a horse and participates in the Boston Tea Party! It made me believe I could convince myself to like boys, particularly if I got to use their resources to my advantage and they mostly stayed the hell away. This happens: Felicity befriends an apprentice, Benjamin Davidson, then promptly STEALS HIS BRITCHES to rescue a horse for her damn self from a TOTAL PERVERT named Jiggy Nye. There’s a vague crush situation happening with Ben. Basically, he gets mad at Felicity for wanting to learn how to be a gentlewoman and serve tea, helps her primp before a dance, then goes far, far away for sexy rebel reasons.

Meetfel_30

Jiggy Nye = total creeper.

Owning Felicity made me believe I was becoming a different girl. By which I mean: my identity formation was directly tied to consumption.

Nostalgic retrospectives applaud the dolls’ plucky, can-do attitudes as affirming of female empowerment. They praise the multiculturalism that places diverse girls at the forefront of history.

American Girl dolls taught my generation to swallow a particularly insipid kind of diversity fetishism. Girls could consume snippets of other cultures upon purchase. They could absorb these scraps into their still-coalescing identities. Moms could reassure themselves that, thanks to their credit cards, they’d taught diversity sufficiently without their daughters ever actually speaking to a person from another culture.

The first dolls were all white. Non-Caucasian dolls were added later: afterthought, or begrudging concession. Their stories were more about “struggles” and “heritage” than their personalities.

One scholar, Nancy Duffey Storey, noted that, of 57 catalogues reviewed, “only five catalogues had a front cover depicting a minority girl,” only one example had a girl holding a doll of another race, and girls of different races never once appeared on the cover together.

The implicit message is obvious: the dolls were “diverse.” The dolls were entirely segregated.

The dolls’ status as early models of “diversity” for many girls might contribute to the shocking lack of nuance around race endemic in America. Might lead to: tokenism, fetishization, and a lack of willingness to extricate implicit bias. Might later look like: whitegirls wearing bindis, Dia de los Muertos parties completely absent of Latin@s, blackface, paying $5000 to “learn to teach English in Thailand” (read: get trashed on a beach for a month).

The Pleasant Company handily taught girls to align with prescribed gender roles. Obedience, helpfulness, image improvement, and allegiance to family are constant undercurrents—in short, how to be Pleasant.

This focus on molding diminutive girls plays out in some pretty fucked-up racial ways. [2]

For example, “Gentle” Josephina Montoya’s grandmother teaches her how to become a curandera. “I always have a moment to listen, a smile to share, and a place in my heart for the people and animals on my family’s rancho. Some say I’m too quiet, but I’m never shy about showing how much I care,” her catalog copy says.

Translation: Just like your deferential Mexican housekeeper, plus bonus healing powers!

722946Or take “Daring” Kaya, a newer Native American character, who is basically Pocahontas 2.0: “Wild adventures and amazing surprises are everywhere in nature, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement! I’m lucky that my loyal mare, Steps High, always walks the right path—and teaches me to do the same. I always take time to respect the Earth.”

Translation: Magickal nature connection = totally genetically programmed into savage Injun blood!

“Courageous” Addy has “escaped to a new life. My whole world is opening up, but I’m learning that freedom doesn’t make everything easy. Through it all, family is what keeps me going. Just the thought of us all together gives us strength.”

Translation: Blackfolks have big, loud families! Careful: they might even band together against whitefolks if the cops let ‘em get uppity.

My tone here is sardonic not because this is humorous. Racism isn’t funny. I’m joking as an attempt to not cry, as an attempt to transform non-verbal marketing messages into dialogue as a means of teasing out the implicit mindset.

This tasty conflation of moralizing and whitewashed history are, of course, seamlessly embedded in the book-to-catalog product tie-ins. Addy teaches Momma how to read. She opens her lunch pail to find cookies that spell L-O-V-E, which you can buy for the low, low price of $28!

Imagine trying to figure out how to buy your kid $28 of plastic food while packing your kid a real lunch in a plastic bag. At 5 AM. Before your three jobs. With food bought on EBT. In a food desert.

These are not dolls for low-income folks. I sensed my well-off mother’s hesitancy when I begged for the canopy bed. I stopped asking.

Here are some expensive things you could buy. (AG catalog.)

Here are some expensive things you could buy (American Girl catalog)

I don’t mean to discount the dolls’ merits: many girls were undoubtedly exposed to cultures or beliefs outside their own for the first time, which likely led to further investigation. Still, I take issue with the fact that this “knowledge” was gleaned by purchase, which granted ownership. It wasn’t a product of communication with people from other cultures. This way of thinking directly correlates with many of this generation’s weaknesses with regards to diversity, particularly allyhood and appropriation.

I’d like to claim I’m documenting an artifact of the past. I’d like to say “This is the product of a particularly harebrained 80s liberalism! We’ve progressed!” But I think the American Girl doll situation has worsened, and others agree.

Pleasant Company was bought by Mattel in 1998, and the empire has expanded in predictable ways. There’s an absurd interactive experience: go to American Girl Place, have tea with your dolls, get your hair done. It’s quasi-historical… if history took place in a mall and was designed to make girls feel special for shopping.

The “historical dolls” have been relegated to the sidelines. The emphasis is buying JustLikeYou dolls, made to exactly resemble their owners, makeup-counter style.

american-girl-place

There’s bifurcation into games, films, dolls of different lines, child-size clothes that match the dolls. There’s a lot of noise about limited-release Girl of the Year dolls and Hail Mary pitches to buy historical dolls before they’re retired. Doll purchase grants girls access to InnerStarU, a sort of online university of dolldom.

There are lots of baby dolls, and all lines older than the Bitty Baby dolls—BittyTwins, MyAmericanGirl, BeForever—pose next to a grinning best friend.

These sidekicks are more likely to be non-white.

So: what did these dolls teach my generation about diversity, about cultural appropriation, and about class?

If my models were the least harmful models of all the girl-toys, and things have slid, what are girls learning today?

My overarching concern is the manner by which “understanding” gleaned via purchase is woven into identity formation. Perhaps I’m being get-off-my-lawn crotchety, but the swapping of historicization for personalization strikes me as a swap of critical contextualization for navel-gazing. The array of limited-edition lines grooms girls for a race to consume and regurgitate a personal brand over a glut of platforms; the emphasis on friendship discredits introversion in favor of networking and assimilation.

It’s easy to glaze fondly over details from Kirsten’s stories: the Santa Lucia candle wreath she wore in a blizzard a childhood pinpoint of light. It’s less easy to find myself assuming I know about Santa Lucia, Diwali, or Kwanzaa from vague scraps gleaned from books, rather than lived experience. It’s less easy to realize I see the past as a static, ambered jewel I can dip into at will, rather than several thousand years of scorched-earth warfare preserved by the victors. It’s particularly mind-boggling to remember I’m on this chain: the plastic from my Kirsten is leaching into groundwater in a landfill somewhere.

For better or worse, I’m an American girl. I’m trying to do the easy thing less. I’m trying to listen harder to the stories around me and retell my own stories better.

[1] Upon further research, Adrienne Raphel, apparently also a weirdo kid, said it first in The New Yorker: “Today, we might identify with the women of ‘Girls,’ but in the nineties we were our favorite American Girls. Felicitys were the horse girls. Kirstens had arts-and-crafty streaks. Addys were bossy and always decided which game we would play next. Mollys were cool nerds before that was a thing. One Molly friend faked having bad vision so she could get glasses; when she finally confessed, she had to wear re-corrective lenses to bring her eyes back to normal. Samanthas—well, Samanthas were bookish but outdoorsy, smart but not show-off-y, and loyal friends. (Not that I’m biased.) ‘I was very dedicated to the cause,’ Elizabeth Phillips, a twenty-six-year-old Kirsten, told me. ‘I was trying to be that one doll to the depths of my bones.’ Phillips used an Advent wreath as a headdress for Santa Lucia, the traditional Swedish holiday Kirsten celebrated at Christmastime. She wore her Santa Lucia dress when she went with family members to a Republican convention: ‘Fiscally conservative, socially Kirsten.’”

[2] I’ve used the company’s current website for examples. I’m not sure how much more—or less—PC the language was in my heyday; I can’t find comprehensive interior catalog scans.
 
 
MirrorFenceSelfieNina Puro’s work is forthcoming or recently appeared in BETTER: Culture and Lit, H_ngm_n, Indiana Review, the Philadelphia Review of Books, Prelude, the PEN America Poetry Series, and other places. A chapbook, Two Truths & A Lie, will drop from dancing girl press in 2015. Nina lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, and is bad at thinking of clever third-person quips to put in places like this.

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4 Responses to She Was an American Girl: What American Girl Dolls (Mis)taught Me About Race and Class

  1. Pingback: Rah! Rah! Roundup | WEIRD SISTER

  2. Joley

    Hi! I definitely believe that diversity is sorely needed in American Girl, especially as the Girl of the Year. I actually sent a letter to the company regarding this. Thank you for this post!

  3. Karen

    Thank you for some eye-opening. Even though much of the underlying marketing sneakily teaches even grown-ups; there is plenty positive for those who are not sucked in. I love you you could personality-assess by doll favorites.

    For me, a great deal of healing came from identifying with Samantha’s loss and her overhearing the words she was a burden (even if out of context). What I saw was her fighting the mold, saving a family, struggling with social injustice – and I sobbed over how this fit my journey and gave me some hope. Guess its all about where we are, who reads the stories with us, and home life. Advertising is more seriously influential, and I spent a great deal of time helping my kids be aware of the media traps.

    When the American Girl histories were helping me through the discovery of abuse in my childhood; I so wanted to have a club for girls. It wouldn’t have been marketing, class socialization, or forming norms. If they could bring their interests, learn with open minds, see the truth about life, and have a great time; that would have been great. I still have my notes, but not fruits.

    Finally, I have a serious comment about the surprise I got in opening my first story. I was hit so hard with PTSD and other injuries, that I could not read and just about everything I looked at threw me into tears. The first effort I managed was to get the audio books of these historical girls becuase they are juvenile literature, not heavy, and “safe”. So I pick up Kaya to start. The light weight plan is dashed as her village is attacked and she is taken away, escapes in winter, and somehow survives… Nellie survives the alcoholic abuse of her uncle, the death of parents and home, and the orphan train… and gets adopted… hell and hope.

    I take your comments seriously; but come to the conclusion we must look carefully, be honest with children and each other, and not be double victims: first blind-sided by social manipulation; second, claim powerlessness and miss the blessings.

    Thanks again for your gift in writing these things.

  4. Emily Williams

    This is a fascinating and relevant article. My only question is, was American Girl ever really that ubiquitous? I was born in 1983 and grew up on the east coast, and I don’t recall it being that big of a deal among the girls I knew. Most of us were only vaguely aware of it. (Personally, I read the books but was never interested in the dolls.)

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