Kirsten arrived on Christmas. She was a pretty blonde from out of town, sporting a blue prairie dress and an amber necklace. She was smart but a little hard to understand through her thick Swedish accent. Plus, she’d been grieving. Her best friend had been claimed by cholera on her way over and was buried at sea, so even though Kirsten tried her best to have a good time in her new home, anyone could tell that she had a lot on her mind.
The moment I laid eyes on the American Girl books, I was hooked. I remember milling around my grade school library, an eight-year-old looking for something smart to read. It was a tough age when it came to picking out books. I was too big for picture books but not quite ambitious enough for the Brontës or even Louisa May Alcott. But I liked history. And I did not like reading about boys all the time. When I saw a cover featuring this blonde Swedish girl smiling up at me from her life in the 1840s, I knew these books were for me.
The Kirsten books were my first experience with the enormously successful American Girl franchise. The doll came later. Having burned through stories about Kirsten, Molly, and Felicity, I found myself sleeping over at a friend’s place—who, looking back, was one of two children and came from a family that was used to spoiling itself. My friend walked around her family’s Midwestern farmhouse with Samantha, the Victorian doll, tucked proudly under her arm. “She comes with the checkered dress, but I also got the party outfit,” Erica said, beaming. “I’m asking for the sailor outfit for Christmas.” A few weeks later, my first American Girl catalog arrived in the mail, and I made a weekend of circling what I wanted and placing my notes indiscreetly before my mom’s dinner plate.
When I look back on my first eighty-dollar doll and her pricey wardrobe, I’ve bounced back and forth about whether I should see American Girl as a positive or negative force for girls. Like anything marketed to children, the company seems to offer good ideas mixed with bad habits.
It’s no small accomplishment that American Girl has been responsible for lighting a flare for reading in little girls. The chapter books are an easy read and have enough illustrations to keep even beginning readers interested. The books dwell in history, revealing social and political dimensions to girls who may not otherwise receive those messages in context. My first time reading Molly I was introduced to the concept of gender stereotypes (Molly’s World War II–era class donated to the war effort by having the boys collect scrap metal and the girls knit socks), and my first read through Samantha showed me the disparate conditions of the wealthy heroine and her best friend, who had to work at a factory so her family could eat. Today, an American Girl reader can learn about girls from the 1760s onward, with a variety of races and traditions represented. The dolls offer diversity that is both historical and contemporary, and the catalog even takes a whack at ableism by offering a doll-sized wheel chair. When a girl connects strongly with her book, she buys the doll, a tool for helping her to actualize the positive stories she’s read and become actors in the drama of play that helps girls develop into who they’ll eventually become.
In addition to the books and dolls, American Girl released a magazine in the early nineties, featuring articles on how to be better friends and community members—just like the figures in our American Girl books. Growing up, I owned an American Girl play kit, complete with script and prop suggestions, so I could gather my friends on the playground and act out a scene that was both historical and good for our collective self-esteem as growing girls. That day I played with girls who I didn’t normally play with but who loved American Girl, so the play helped me build the confidence I needed to expand my social circle.
All of this says a lot for a contemporary toy company, but it makes sense to a feminist critique to dig a little deeper. While I still position the books as extremely positive and fairly diverse tools for girls’ intellectual development, I struggle to look beyond the idea that the books are really just ads for toys. While most every middle-America kid can name the author of Harry Potter, most would be hard pressed to name just one of the American Girl writers, whose names are de-emphasized for the sake of promoting the brand as a monolith. The cynic in me catches on this minimizing of who actually wrote the literature as well as the dolls’ push for materialism among the youngest of female consumers. American Girl has a handful of megastores in the United States, each one catering to what seems to be mostly affluent, mostly white families who can afford not only the pricey doll and endless permutations of accessories, but also the cross-country trip involved in the visit.
“The place was packed, and everyone had their dolls. They brought one out for me to have tea with,” my dad said, after taking my younger sisters to the Chicago store. “It was unreal.” The underlying message issuing from the stores is that American Girl is a special rite of passage, that middle-class American families can be expected to provide this enormous expense for the sake of their daughters’ happiness. My dad saw the store as a fun experience that you sort of owe to your daughters to provide (at least in his case, where the store is only an hour away). And he may be right—it’s all just a good time. But the materialism behind it all tells me that I should at least be careful, if not outright damning, about the message.
The doll itself also comes with gender and social expectations that can be confusing for girls. For starters, the original three dolls were all white and all came from the middle (or upper) class, an idea that clearly illustrates who American Girl thought of as the “American Girl.” The dolls also present girls with the ever-present programming of learning to be mothers over their toys instead of interacting with them as peers—the dolls emulate tween-age girls but look more like toddlers with their adorable tooth gap and self-closing baby-doll eyes. Finally, the whole point of the dolls is to make money, and it’s staggering to realize how much parents are willing to spend to give their daughters a slice of the American Girl experience. This idea instills, at an early age, that not only is shopping fun but it is also necessary in order to fit in with a desired peer group. American Girl seems to have taken an age group that was relatively unmarked by fashion must-haves and expensive fads and introduced an expensive product that these girls must own in order to fit in.
At the end of the day, I see the franchise as, for the most part, another benign addition to aisles of girls’ toys that teach them to perform femininity, and teach boys not to (unless you’re in your fifties, taking your daughters and their dolls to tea). For all the good the books brought me, and for the little bit of socializing that came from owning the doll, I’ve always seen American Girl as more of a positive force in my life than a negative one. But I still wonder why all our parents’ eagerly bought these tokens of affluence and social belonging for us, when just a few years earlier, they would have waved away our requests for some other piece of eighty-dollar junk. Is the doll and the superstore something I’d do for my daughter? Are the dolls really a special rite, or just eighty-dollar excuses to take people’s money? I’ll probably always have questions. Either way, today I’m a feminist, with fond memories of my pint-size Swedish immigrant, lazing in the closet with her anachronistic saddle shoes and a doll-sized iMac.