American Girl: How Radical Can a $105 Doll Be?

04/26/2013 12:57 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013
Little girl in a fancy dress, setting by a fence, holding a doll.
Little girl in a fancy dress, setting by a fence, holding a doll.

The first generation of American Girl Doll owners are now young adults who have started looking back fondly at their childhoods, and this has resulted in a spurt of articles about these dolls. It is difficult to look back at your youth without some nostalgia. The American Girl books connected many young readers with history. It is true that the company now downplays the historical dolls, and instead emphasizes the line of dolls that have contemporary clothes and accessories. But it is unrealistic to claim that the dolls were radical until they became corrupted by Mattel, which acquired the company in 1998. To the credit of the company's founder, Pleasant Rowland, the dolls have child-like bodies which are not sexualized like that of the infamous Barbie (also owned by Mattel). These dolls are well-crafted, and their characters are well-researched.

However, the American Girl dolls of the past, spunky and courageous as they might have been in some of the plots of their books, were hardly radical. In the books, the characters often came from privilege and learned about the "other" -- Native American friend, child laborer -- through some sort of friendly contact. Their acts might have been charitable, but not revolutionary.

Amy Schiller recently pointed out in The Atlantic that this new emphasis on clothing and accessories once again gives young girls the notion that appearance defines personality. Let's take a moment to consider some of the less productive lessons we learned about American history from the American Girl books that accompanied the historical dolls.

While these books generated narratives from the point of view of a young girl -- a character who shows up infrequently in most history lessons -- they also tend to relegate problems to the nation's "resolved" past. For example, the Addy doll escapes from slavery in 1864 and by the end of that year, when Addy has learned to read the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery has ceased to haunt American society. We learn that social problems from the past are of relatively little consequence and dissipate quickly. Also, historical periods appear distinctively separate and entirely disconnected from other eras -- and the present.

In addition, the stories that accompany the dolls generally promote fairly conservative gender roles for young girls. Indoor hobbies like embroidery and sewing are presented as natural and timeless activities, rather than acts that are representative of the limited scope of acceptable female pastimes in American society in the past. Instances of gender inequality also tend to occur only at times when they are minimally intrusive to the plot. This suggests an American society in which women have always been fairly empowered. It negates the importance of feminist movement and fetishizes corsets (buy one for your doll today!).

Lastly, and most importantly, these dolls are and have always been incredibly expensive. Schiller points out that Saige, one of the more recent "American Girl of the Year" dolls, is upper-middle-class and white. This is not new for the company. The most popular historical characters -- Samantha, the wealthy Victorian doll, and Felicity, the Colonial doll whose grandfather owned a plantation -- were also rich and white. When it comes down to it, this organization is one based in consumerism, not non-profit education. The population buying these dolls has always been largely white and middle to upper class. I have fond memories of my American Girl doll, but really, how radical is a $105 doll that only brings history alive for the elite?