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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.

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