My daughter was an early reader. When she was first able to read chapter books, I found the American Girl books and fell in love with them. Stories of high adventure with little girls as the heroines, set in the context of American history? What could be better? Nothing, that’s what. So I brought home armloads of books from the library—books about settling the Western frontier with fortitude, surviving the Great Depression with spunk, learning to speak Spanish and ride horseback and write newspaper articles. Oh, how I loved those books. My daughter, not so much.
Although she was an advanced reader and capable of absorbing the words on the page, she was really too young for them. She was only five, and not ready for the complexities of historical fiction. So we read a few of the books, until she tired of them. Her interest in the games on the American Girl website outlasted her interest in the books, but even computer-generated scavenger hunts didn’t capture her attention for long. She just never fell in love with the concept the way I did.
Meanwhile, Barbie was waving at us from her hot pink convertible. Of course, we hopped in for a spin around the block. Barbie even had some books about her own high adventures, and we read those. I think they were mostly mysteries. Or maybe they were about relationships, like figuring out how to get the most out of your time with your BFF. I really can’t remember. Whatever.
We hung out with Barbie for a while, but I kept glancing at the American Girl dolls. I really wanted to get one for my daughter—if she wasn’t going to read the books, at least she would have a counterpart to this Barbie stuff—a doll that was a bona-fide girl and not a grown-up, but who could be and do all kinds of cool things with her little girl self. However, American girl dolls are REALLY expensive. Around a hundred dollars for the doll, and then of course there are the outfits. And the furniture. And what about the American Girl stores? Who wouldn’t want to take her doll for tea in a fancy New York store and then have her hair and nails done and buy a bunch of cool accessories?
I thought we were talking about American Girls, not Barbies. Why are we suddenly having tea and getting our nails done and buying accessories? I mean, those things are fun and all, but aren’t they Barbie’s purview? Shouldn’t American Girls be writing a play or building a homemade pulley or something?
Oh well, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t spend a hundred dollars on a doll anyway.
A few years went by, me in this disgruntled state about American Girls—wishing I could buy one and annoyed at the ironic combination of expense, frivolity, and can-do messages. During this time, my daughter’s attention was also captured by American Girls—not the books, but the dolls. The line has expanded to include My American Girl dolls that a girl can craft to look like herself—same eye color, same hair color, freckles or glasses or earrings. My daughter really wanted one of these dolls, but she didn’t ask for one often, as we’d told her they were too expensive.
Then there came a day when my daughter grew tired of Barbie, and we agreed that, since she generally gets a large present at Christmas, it could be an American Girl. So, as I write this, a My American Girl doll sits in a box in my laundry room, awaiting Christmas morning. I’m happy about buying the doll because I think American Girl dolls generally send positive messages (though they can tend to get a bit self-absorbed). The doll doesn’t have a grown-up body dressed in revealing clothes, but a child’s body, dressed in the clothes of exploration. Yoga and horseback riding, ice skating and school, and yes, the occasional fancy party.
One of the things I love about the way American Girl has expanded is that it focuses now on real girls who are figuring themselves out as they grow up. During a recent trip to a bookstore, we bought a few American Girl books about caring for yourself—taking responsibility for your own body and feelings. As American Girl has expanded from the past into the present, the dolls and the books have reflected the real, everyday challenges of growing up girl in America.
I’m glad we’ve made this switch, though I fully expect to be pushing back against a tidal wave of requests for doll furniture and doll clothes for the next few years. This particular tidal wave bothers me for two reasons:
- The dolls—and everything associated with them—are prohibitively expensive. Most of the 99% can’t buy these dolls. Maybe they’ll be able to buy a book or two, but the whole world of American Girl—and, by association, its’ positive messages—is a privileged one, set against the backdrop of twenty-first century consumerism.
- Guess who owns American Girl? Wait for it…
Mattel. Yep. The same company that owns Barbie.
Mattel didn’t always own American Girl. The dolls were invented by a former schoolteacher who wanted to create a doll that focused on girlhood. But, in an American story that is as classic as boy meets girl, the small company met the big corporation. So…whether your girl dreams of the Barbie castle or the American Girl canopy bed, Mattel cashes in. And the messages that go along with either doll (and in some cases, both dolls) are, like so much else when it comes to American culture, beside the point for those who are presenting choices to the consumer. For them, the point isn’t empowerment and self-esteem or body image or frivolity or ingenuity or what we teach our girls—the point is, and always has been, profit.
Money matters, of course it does. But, in manufacturing as in media, those in power are making very short-sighted decisions about profit. I challenge Mattel, or any other doll-making company, to create an American-girl type of doll that sells for the price of Barbie. An affordable doll with the body of a child that allows a little girl to imagine what she might be, now and in the future, without defining her appearance as the driving force behind her self-esteem. A doll that encourages little girls to feel fantastic about their bodies, their minds, and their abilities. What could be better? Nothing, that’s what.
Where there’s a great idea (especially one that people need, the way we need this doll), there’s profit. In every sense of the word.