23. American Girl Dolls

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture
 

 

Contributor: Brigitte Fielder

Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies

University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

Since their introduction in 1986, American Girl dolls have become a prominent marker of American Childhood's implications in American consumerism. Often critiqued for their high cost and the consumer culture produced by their wide range of accessories, American Girl has created a brand that simultaneously constructs the notion of American girlhood that it markets. The company's original and continued main focus on a line of historically-contextualized dolls that are accompanied by series of historical fiction books about each character, illustrate what Robin Bernstein has argued is a long-lived and close relationship between children's literary and material culture. Through these stories, the American Girl characters become models of American girlhood, widely construed, as these characters push against and even break more common understandings of America's national, temporal and geographic boundaries.


In this sense, American Girl is inclusive, encompassing characters who are hardly “American” in the conventional, national, sense – Kaya, the Nimíipuu/Nez Perce girl from an era before contact with white settler-colonists; Felicity, a colonist whose story starts before the founding of the American nation; Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant whose story begins before she reaches America; Addy, an enslaved African-American girl; Josefina, a girl from a part of Mexico that would only become American after the Mexican-American War. Through such characters, American Girl creates this vision of inclusive, multiculturalist, American girlhood, even as it creates products that are accessible only to girls of relative wealth and problematically relegates the majority of its (relatively few) nonwhite characters to a past before the turn of the twentieth century. It also creates a model of Americanness that is inherently expansionist in its ability to make these historically set characters “American Girls” retroactively, based on later notions of inclusion, citizenship, and the geographical bounds of the American nation.


American Girl, in addition to making a product that works to construct the notion of “girlhood” along intersections of gender, race, class, and history, also produces a metacommentary on dolls and their historical associations with notions of girlhood in America. The historical character dolls have dolls of their own, which reflect their specific historical and cultural contexts. The wealthy Samantha has a porcelain doll, with a pink lace dress; Kaya, the American Girl belonging to the Nimíipuu or Nez Perce tribe, has a doll that comes with a cradleboard; Addy, a formerly-enslaved girl, has a doll with a dark-fabric skin and short, black yarn hair; Cécile, a free gen de couleur from mid-nineteenth century New Orleans, has a set of paper dolls made in the image of Jenny Lind, a famous actress of the era. These dolls’ dolls further inscribe doll ownership and play onto practices of American girlhood by making this practice a part of the stories whose characters are then translated into the dolls with which their customers will play.

 

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Categories: AC25

 American Girl dolls started off with stories, and even hired historians to write them. But in recent years, those dolls are being retired,  and fewer new ones added. Instead what is happening is that the dolls that are purchased are the custom combinations "To look like Me."  The history dolls are less popular. This trend has increased in the last 5 years. Most of the books aren't going out of print, but they have been repackaged. 

While I agree with Brigitte's analysis that the American Girls is immersive in its consumer culture, I also think they can instigate initiative by parents and girls.  I played with Felicity when I was younger, but a large part of my memories involved learning to sew from my mother who very patiently involved me and my father who crafted his version of a rope bed. At the time, my parents did say it was because of finances, I now think it was because of the activity we could do together. Equally interesting perhaps are the Simplicity patterns for 18" dolls, which appealed to American Girl doll owners because of their historical patterns. This is not to say that American Girl dolls are unique in providing oportunities for learning to sew.

In response to Cheryl, I think it might be more than five years ago, I remember the looks like me back in the catalogue a few years after I got mine in 1992. Nonetheless, your observation is interesting, especially the repackaging of the books.