American Girl, makers of high quality dolls, historical fictions, films, and other products for girls, has cornered the market on how to sell American girlhood to the public. Its popularity came to my attention during my university teaching. I regularly teach an introductory children’s literature course for preservice teachers. With few exceptions, most of the young women in my class enthusiastically remember reading the historical American Girl books and playing with the dolls. After several semesters of hearing about the merits of American Girl from my students, I decided it was time to investigate this cultural phenomenon.
I remember two dolls from my girlhood, Barbie and Crissy, who had hair that you could adjust in length by twisting a knob on her back. These dolls did not fare well; they experienced numerous multilevel falls from bedroom windows and hairdressing appointments during which my sister and I melted each doll’s lovely locks on hot light bulbs. One of Barbie’s feet had been half-gnawed off by a mouse in our attic. Thus, I came to the American Girl materials with a certain distance and ambivalence about dolls.
Nevertheless, I signed up to receive the American Girl catalogs and read the historical fictions. I learned that they are expensive: the Samantha Parkington doll, book, and accessories, for instance, costs $105.00. I made a trek to the American Girl Place, a three-story shop in Chicago. American Girl Place transports the visitor to another world where one can shop for dolls, accessories, books, or child-size versions of American Girl doll clothes; stop by the hair salon to get an American Girl doll a new “do”; make a reservation at the cafe where adults, girls, and their dolls (sometimes dressed in the same outfit) enjoy brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, or dinner; pose for a picture at the photo studio; or watch a movie in the theater.
A brief history of American Girl reveals a winning coming-of-age story. American Girl, LLC, was founded by Pleasant Rowland, a former Wisconsin schoolteacher who, according to the company’s website, “wanted to give girls an understanding of America’s past and a sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday.” American Girl produces a variety of products, including books, dolls, movies, a magazine, a catalog, and a website. American Girl published its first direct-mail catalog for girls aged 7 through 12 in 1986. Since that time, they have sold 123 million American Girl books, and 14 million American Girl dolls. Their magazine American Girl has a circulation of 620,000 and the website americangirl.com attracts at least 51 million visits per year. American Girl dolls were originally marketed as “anti-Barbie.” Ironically, in 1998 Pleasant Rowland sold American Girl for $700 million to Mattel, the company that manufactures Barbie.
American Girl is perhaps best known for the historical American Girl doll collection. The usual suspects in this collection include Molly, Samantha, Felicity, Kit, Kirsten, Addy, Josefina, Kaya, and Julie. At first glance, the American Girl historical collection offers strong and plucky girls who counter images and/or storylines of girlhood offered by Disney, Bratz, or Barbie. However, any potential “girl-power” lessons are short-circuited in these books through the use of historical fiction to deliver traditional lessons about what girls can and should do. While the stories take place in key historical moments, such as the Civil War, and World War II, the girls rarely participate in historical events in any substantial way. Meet Molly is set in WWII and her father, a doctor, serves in the U.S. military. Molly’s concerns center on what to be for Halloween and how to deal with a bothersome brother. The historical fictions encourage a limited independence and emphasize conventional “good girl” behaviors. Girls might go on an adventure or two, but these are usually within the bounds of family relationships (e.g., playing tricks on brothers) rather than as social actors in a larger world. In addition, the visuals on the covers of the American Girl catalog undercut the lessons about empowerment that the books offer. For example, on the front cover of the October 2006 catalog, two upper-class Anglo-American girls sit quietly in front of a fireplace holding their dolls. The girls are placed inside rather than outside and are stationary, watching rather than doing.
The American Girl historical girl collection also purports to be multicultural and includes African American (Addy), Latina (Josefina), and Native American (Kaya) characters. However, this inclusion is superficial and represents the ways in which “difference,” like “girl power,” has become a commodity that American Girl markets to its consumers. American Girl hires an advisory panel of “insiders” or cultural experts when creating characters such as Addy, Kaya, and Josefina; however, the histories that the corporation ultimately settles on telling invite critique. For instance, Kaya’s story takes place in 1764 before Lewis and Clark arrive in 1805 and before the Nez Perce are forced to move to disease-ridden Fort Leavenworth in 1877. In a review of the Kaya series, Beverly Slapin (2007) writes that, “The series oversimplifies and sanitizes Nimíipuu history, and by doing so, makes history more palatable to the contemporary sensibilities of the young non-Native girl readers for whom this series was conceptualized.” The glossary of Nez Perce and Spanish words included in the Kaya and Josefina books further highlight the point that these books are mainly intended to educate readers unfamiliar with these “other” cultures.
Josefina’s story takes place on a rancho near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1824 before the Mexican-American War. The nonfictional “Looking Back: America in 1824” at the end of Meet Josefina dilutes this colonial history by limiting discussion to two sentences about the Mexican-American War and pointing out that when it ended in 1848, America “claimed most of the land that is now the southwestern United States” (Tripp, 1997, p. 83). The author of this history then moves on to describe the benefits of this war. “Although Josefina would never have imagined it when she was 9 years old, she would one day be an American — and the cultures and traditions of the New Mexican settlers and their Pueblo neighbors would become part of America, too” (p. 83). It is important to note that this loss of sovereignty was especially significant for New Mexican women, who had many more rights as Mexicans than they had as Americans — like the right to own their own property. The creators at American Girl favor a whitewashed version of this history, and Josefina’s narrative reads as a melting pot story in which difference is assimilated into a larger American girlhood identity. Like Meet Josefina, each of the historical fictions takes place in the past and in this way allows issues such as racism, colonization, and war to be presented as things that America has overcome.
Each book includes a textbook-like “Peek at the Past” or “Looking Back” section at the end of each girl’s story that adds historical context. This background material parallels standard textbook fare. Given that American Girl claims to provide girls with a sense of history, it is striking that these brief narratives focus on general American history rather than on the history of girls or even women in the United States. The representation of American girlhood in these materials avoids any lessons about social activism and refuses to teach girls about how to organize or how to fight ongoing gender and/or racial discrimination. Real life examples could have been included, such as the story of 11-year-old Harriet Hanson, who led a strike in Lowell, Mass., in 1936 against unfair and harsh working conditions for mill girls. American Girl chooses to market a less controversial story about girlhood in The Great Depression in which Kit Kitredge sacrifices her room for one in the attic so that her family can take boarders into their house for extra money. For the year 1944, American Girl focuses on a white privileged girl rather than choosing to tell a story about the experiences of a Japanese American girl interned in a camp. Let’s just say I don’t anticipate a Black Panther American Girl doll to turn up any time soon.
Some might argue that American Girl is not as bad as other materials on the market, or as offensive as Barbie or Bratz dolls. This argument misses the key features of what makes this phenomenon so insidious: how corporations play on the feminist and /or educative aspirations of parents, teachers, girls, and young women and turn these toward consumption. American Girl is less about strong girls, diversity or history than about marketing girlhood, about hooking girls, their parents and grandparents into buying the American Girl products and experience.
On this point, it is interesting to hear from young women who played with these materials as children. For instance, when I spoke with my undergraduate students about what appealed to them about American Girl, they talked mostly about shopping. These young women talked not about any specific history but about looking through and buying things from the catalog. One student said that one of the reasons that she loved playing with American Girl dolls was because, “It came with all these cool things.” Another student agreed, “It came with everything. The little glasses and little necklaces.” Two other young women remembered really wanting Addy because “she came with different stuff.” The eight students that I spoke with associate the pleasure of American Girl with the “stuff” and “cool things” that came with each doll. A persuasive curriculum of consumerism dominated the young women’s recollections of these materials rather than any educational or historical aspects.
These responses demonstrate how savvy American Girl is about product placement in their historical fictions. As one of my students told me: “I would read something in the book and they [the author] would be talking about the bedroom and I’d get out the catalog and I could look at all the stuff and see what I could get to recreate what was going on in the story.” The books function as advertisements for other American Girl paraphernalia. For instance, in Changes for Kaya: A Story of Courage, Kaya receives a beautiful saddle “at the giveaway after Swan Circling’s burial” (Shaw, 2002, p. 56). In the catalog and website, the saddle sells for $18.00. Kaya’s horse “Steps High” comes with a “fringed hide blanket” and young readers can buy this combination for $75.00. Similarly, in Meet Molly, Molly “goes Hawaiian” for Halloween and dresses as a hula dancer (Tripp, 1986, p. 27). The book includes a stereotypical illustration of a young, brown-skinned, presumably Hawaiian woman with a flower lai and a grass skirt. You can buy this costume for your doll for $22.00.
Additionally, at the end of the novels that I read, I found a pullout postcard that encouraged me to sign up for an American Girl catalog. One of the cards reads: “While the books are the heart of The American Girls Collection®, they are only the beginning. The stories in the collection come to life when you act them out with the beautiful American Girl dolls and their exquisite clothes and accessories.” When you receive the catalogue, you quickly see how the books tie into a larger cross-promotional strategy. The accessories that accompany each doll are in bold. For instance, in the October 2006 catalog: “Samantha arrives in a dress with stockings, shoes, a hair bow and a Meet Samantha paperback book. Her accessories set includes a locket, hat, purse, hankie, and pretend Indian head penny.” It is no wonder that young women remember the accessories rather than the history.
The American Girl materials are complex. The storylines offer faux-empowerment and reductive historical narratives that are often difficult to unpack. This complexity as well as the range of materials (website, dolls, books, catalogs, magazines) marketed to girls by American Girl invites a critical stance. American Girl materials, like other popular texts produced for and/or consumed by children, warrant our attention and cannot be dismissed as innocent girlhood materials. Rather, American Girl is invested in marketing a particular version of American girlhood that plays on the good intentions of parents, grandparents and educators. American Girl challenges us to critically examine the cultural lessons about gender and history contained in this unofficial yet salient curriculum, and tests us to find ways to get our students thinking critically about the tactics corporations use to school and gender young consumers under the guise of education.n
American Girl Corp. (2008). Fast Facts. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2008 from http://www.americangirl.com/corp/media/fastfacts.html
American Girl Corp. (2006). American Girl: Follow your inner star. October. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications.
American Girl Corp. (2007). Welcome to Pleasant Company. Retrieved April 11, 2008 from http://www.americangirl.com/corp/html/customers.html
Shaw, J. (2002). Changes for Kaya: A story of courage. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications.
Slapin, B. (2007). “American Girls Collection: Kaya.” American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical perspectives and discussion of American Indians in children’s books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society-at large. Retrieved April 11, 2008 from http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2007/04/american-girls-collection-kaya-broken.html.
Tripp, V. (1986, 1989, 2000). Meet Molly. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications.
– – -. (1997, 2000). Meet Josefina. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications.
– – -. (2000). Meet Kit. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications.