The American Doll
Zoe, my six-year-old, was practically vibrating with delight when she opened the big
rectangular box and pulled out her first American Girl doll. It was her birthday. She had
asked for Felicity—the "colonial era" doll, but there had been a mix-up.
She got Kirsten instead. This "pioneer" girl is from Sweden. Blond hair. Blue
eyes. "Oooh, she looks just like you, Zoe," people raved.
Now she was the proud owner of the much coveted American Girl doll. We had vaguely
supported her strong desire to have an American Girl doll. At least we had passed her
birthday wish list on to a willing grandparent. We knew that the doll would come with
books that told the girl’s story, that the dolls were of a decent quality, and that,
well, they weren’t Barbies.
Parents of girls are known to experience moments of elation when their daughters show
interest in dolls that are not Barbie. We all know about Barbie. She’s got that
impossible figure, the deformed feet (though there is the occasional flat-footed model),
the big hair, the gravity-defying breasts. No matter what version you buy—and there
are many—Barbie always looks the same without her clothes on. That’s why, even
though the 1990s has brought us the Paleontologist Barbie, the Barbie Dentist, the
Movin’ and Groovin’ Barbie, a nurturing big brother Ken who comes boxed with his
little brother, an African American version of Barbie and Ken named Imani and
Menelik—both dressed in African garb—and a Barbie-type doll in a wheelchair
named "Share a Smile Becky," feminist parents hate Barbie.
In some homes, Barbie is banned. Parents want to protect their daughters as much as
possible from damaging stereotypes. In our household, we don’t ban much, but we do
try to steer clear of certain toys. Kirsten, however, was practically invited in. She
doesn’t have a cinched waist, but my relief about that was short-lived. As it turns
out, she is loaded with enough questionable "American" values and historical
inaccuracies to make me crave Barbie with her current access to a wide range of
"careers," despite (or because of) her ultra-feminine deformities. After all,
it’s pretty simple to point out the silliness of those molded high-heel feet.
It’s a little harder to get a grip on the racialized nationalism of the blond-haired,
blue-eyed pioneer girl.
The Pleasant Company, makers of the American Girl dolls and accessories collection,
thinks "being an American Girl is great—something to stand up and shout
about." The home page of their web site features a fair-skinned girl, looking
straight at you, hands on hips. Her T-shirt is decorated with stars and exclaims,
"Proud to be an American Girl!" Pleasant Rowland, founder of the Pleasant
Company, has the laudable goal of providing girls with quality books and dolls, each
representing a different period of U.S. history. She wants to give girls an
"understanding of America’s past and a sense of pride in the traditions they
share with girls of yesterday."
Grateful for stories about girls that focus on their courage and spunk and adventurous
spirit, and intrigued by history lessons that come through in the "historically
accurate" depictions of the girls’ lives, parents love to see their
daughters’ interest in American Girl dolls.
These dolls do give our daughters positive role models. All six American Girl
dolls—Felicity (1774), Josefina (1824), Kirsten (1854), Addy (1864), Samantha (1904)
and Molly (1944)—are brave, thoughtful, struggling girls with real-life problems and
triumphs. There is even an attempt to represent the multi-cultural nature of the United
States. One of the dolls is African American and one is "Hispanic."
But taken as a whole, there is something troubling about the unbridled patriotism
central to the concept of the American Girl Collection. There is no nuance or critical
investigation of the traditions that we are supposed to feel so proud of. History, they
say, is written by the victors. And the Pleasant Company does indeed deliver the story as
told by the winners.
Even using the word "American" to describe the collection gives us pause.
Since the Americas make up two full continents of which the United States is only a small
part, and since millions of Native people once inhabited the Americas and might accurately
be called Americans, it’s a bit of a leap to pose our pioneer girl from Sweden as the
quintessential American Girl.
The Pleasant Company’s stab at multi-culturalism flattens our understanding of
difference and puts us all in the same patriotic boat. "Meet Josefina," one of
the books tells us, "An American Girl." Well, actually, in 1824, she was a
Mexican girl—not an American girl at all in the Pleasant Company sense of the word.
The United States had yet to declare war on Mexico and fight for two bloody grueling years
in order to "lay claim" to the territory that now makes up the Southwestern
United States. But the book lets us know that being an American Girl is her destiny.
Little does Josefina know that her progeny will one day be fighting English-only
initiatives in their home states.
Addy, the African American girl whose story includes the wrenching break-up of her
family and her escape from slavery, acknowledges race and reveals something of the
inhumanity of slavery. Yet the overwhelming message is patriotic: the Civil War was fought
to free the slaves. At the end of her story, Addy is shown wearing red, white, and blue,
with a picture of Lincoln pinned to her dress while she reads the Emancipation
Proclamation to a hushed and appreciative church full of black folks.
But it’s too late to worry about all this now. The doll is being carried all
around the house. Pleasant Company catalogs are arriving at a fast and furious pace. Each
one provides Zoe with a minimum of a half-hour of thorough absorption. The full-color
85-page tome is more exciting than the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us. Zoe barely blinks as she
scans the pages, admiring the high-quality, high-priced American Girl sidelines. There are
more historically accurate dresses and nightgowns to purchase. Assorted socks, shoes,
picnic baskets, and miniature American flags. There’s Kirsten’s own hand-painted
trunk for $155 and her matching bed "with its charming design" for $55.
"Mom, I need more stuff for Kirsten so I can play with her better."
To distract her from this mail-order reverie, I suggest we read one of the Kirsten
books. We end up getting a grossly misrepresented slice of American history.
Kirsten, we learn, is a pioneer girl "of strength and spirit." Her family
comes from Sweden to farm in Minnesota. The fact that the pioneer presence in the area,
made possible by fraudulent U.S. treaties with the various Ojibwe bands, leads to the
displacement of most of the Native people is treated as a neutral bit of bad luck for
Indians. Kirsten’s cousin Lisbeth expresses trepidation that the "Indians"
might get angry with the pioneers because their farmland is encroaching on the Native
hunting grounds. But, she says to Kirsten, "We need the land too."
According to the Pleasant Company, the European immigrants’ conflict with the
Indians does not result in bloody battles, disease, economic warfare, and the near
decimation of the Native population. Seen through the eyes of the innocent Kirsten, who,
in one book, Kirsten Learns a Lesson, actually befriends a Native girl her age,
it’s simply a sad twist of fate that Singing Bird is hungry and must go West with her
tribe in search of food.
For a brief moment, Kirsten entertains the idea of joining her. "Come,
sister," Singing Bird says.
"Kirsten remembered the warm tepee where Singing Bird lived. She imagined herself
sleeping by Singing Bird’s side under the buffalo hides. If she lived with Singing
Bird she would be free to roam the woods all day. Brave Elk would be good to her. He was
the chief, and Kirsten would be his yellow-haired daughter. She and Singing Bird would
always be together."
Kirsten’s flight of fancy about running away with Singing Bird does not stray much
from the standard Eurocentric romanticizing of Native life. Contrasted as it is in Kirsten
Learns a Lesson with Kirsten’s tortuous hours in the school house with her severe
teacher who commands her students not to act like savages, the dream of running away with
the "Indians" symbolizes a break from civilization. Of course, Kirsten chooses
not to follow Singing Bird. A wise choice, as history shows. Had she joined the Indians,
Kirsten would not have spent a lot of time roaming the woods and sleeping on buffalo
hides. She would have surely gone to her death with a doomed people and a way of life that
would be extinct in the next few decades. Kirsten bids a sad farewell to her Indian friend
and returns home to find she has won a "Reward of Merit" for properly reciting
an English-language verse.
But in the process she has learned another important lesson as well: that Minnesota is
her home. "She wasn’t sure when this place had become her own, but she belonged
here now," the book tells us. The illustration shows the backs of the Native people
as they leave their homeland. They have been neatly displaced. Kirsten, though she has
lived in Minnesota only a few months and has not yet learned English, has a clear sense of
entitlement to the land.
Call me a strident politically correct Mom if you must, but all I could think about
after I read this story to Zoe was what the German equivalent would be. Imagine the
"German Girl Collection" featuring Hilda, a nine-year-old German girl in 1939.
Her little Jewish friend is being taken away on a train. She’s sad at first, but her
departure, which is portrayed as glamorous and mysterious, seems to be inevitable. Oh,
well. Hilda accepts the loss of her friend and is determined to enjoy her status and sense
of belonging so obviously denied the disappeared one. While all the area Jews are being
loaded onto trains, Hilda skips home and is rewarded for some quality that enhances her
Hilda’s and Kirsten’s stories are analogous, but Hilda’s would be
considered outrageous: a nationalistic, racist bit of historical revisionism. Rightly so.
But here in "America," such revisionism is so familiar as to be banal.
As is the misty-eyed preoccupation with home and hearth. The Pleasant Company’s
take on the family is equal parts Norman Rockwell and Newt Gingrich, with a sprinkling of
Anita Bryant. Dad presides over the well-behaved clan. Mother has babies, does enormous
amounts of housework, and is frequently congratulated by Dad for "having heart,"
while they suffer so much hardship. Anchored to a strong family with clear role models,
Kirsten is allowed to be adventurous. In one story, Kirsten goes trapping with her brother
and an old hermit who lives in the woods. She discovers an injured raccoon that she brings
home to nurse. Though instructed not to let him into the house, she does anyway because
it’s so cold in the barn. Sure enough disaster ensues. The raccoon gets loose and
tips over an oil lamp, setting the whole place on fire. Everything is lost except the
trunk they brought from Sweden, which is rescued by Kirsten in a heroic effort. The family
has no home and no furniture, but never fear. Kirsten proceeds to get lost in the woods.
She finds the old hermit’s shelter and discovers that he has collected a huge stack
of furs. For what purpose, no one knows. He has no family and not many needs. But
plundering nature and hoarding wealth are important American values so it does not have to
be explained why an elderly hermit would be going out and methodically trapping every
furry animal in the vicinity, skinning it, and keeping a nice pile of his work.
That’s just what people do. Furthermore, he is dead—from old age, it appears.
It’s Kirsten’s lucky day. She takes the furs and gives them to her parents so
they can get the money to purchase a real home. All’s well that ends well. Spunky
daughters are no problem as long as their energies result in home improvement.
As it turns out there is a Barbie Pioneer Girl as well. Clearly modeled on the
successful Pleasant Company collection, the Barbie Pioneer Girl comes with a little book
that tells the story of Barbie’s foray into the frontier (in high heels no doubt).
The book is about three square inches, and poorly bound with glue. The type is crooked on
the page, and the story is thin. It, like the doll, is not meant to be a keepsake.
It’s barely meant to be read. The pictures are comical—showing the familiar
Barbie in a covered wagon. The whole boxed set is a throwaway toy that costs $9.99. Unlike
the American Girl Collection, which is full of realistic details, "heirloom
quality" accessories, and endless moral justifications and rationalizations for the
twists and turns of U.S. history, Barbie has less to say. Presumably the people of lesser
means who can’t pay for "heirloom quality" don’t have to be quite as
well schooled in the excuses and justifications for capital’s dominance and the
glorification of family values. Girls of means, however, are destined to reproduce and
carry on ruling class values, which are enshrined and made palatable in elaborate
playthings as well as Ivy League schools.
Moms and Dads: we have our work cut out for us. The doll options for our children run
the gamut between pointy-breasted paleontologists and patriotic blond-haired pioneers.
Perhaps we should be grateful that at least the two dolls mentioned are not engineered to
spew body fluids, thus giving our daughters early lessons in the joy of mopping up
assorted excretions. Perhaps we should be grateful that spunk and courage are attributes
ascribed to girls, and that the occasional career girl makes her way into the line-up.
Perhaps we should be appreciative of the ubiquitous blond giving way to the occasional
brunette, and even brown-skinned doll. Perhaps we should feel hopeful that in addition to
having happy-sex-object-homemaker role models for dolls, our daughters also have
feisty-patriot role models who sometimes get into trouble but who always emerge
victorious, thus easing our children’s acceptance of the great and inevitable
American way of life. I am not comforted.
I can’t be a gatekeeper, regulating the flow of influences allowed to reach my
daughter. Not only would it be a huge task, I would be limiting my attention to my own
private and precious offspring. Sort of like buying an air purification
system—physician recommended—for the six square feet around my kid’s bed.
Meanwhile the outside world harbors vast platoons of unfiltered air molecules just waiting
to invade her lungs.
It’s hopeless anyway. Every time I interrupt the story with my own
reflections—okay, diatribes—she says, "Mom, could you just read the
The experts say to buy toys that emphasize creative play and to avoid the toys that
only do one thing. Thus, you save money by not having to buy one Barbie who fills cavities
(while standing on tip-toes), another Barbie who goes to step aerobics (also on tip-toes),
and yet another Barbie decked out in evening wear (how else but on tip-toes?).
Furthermore, your child will benefit from freer play that is less scripted and directed by
exacting toys and their attachments. I would add that we should also beware of the
"educational" books that offer fine-tuned justifications for dominant
institutions past and present. These books may appeal to our children’s intellect,
but they represent an early start to the process of inculcating kids with the values and
norms that they’ll need to rationalize an unjust world.
Consider also, in the world beyond your child’s playroom, how you can help build
and support the institutions and communities that offer alternatives. Creating spaces that
emphasize care over consumption, continuity over disposability, and diversity over
universality will expose all children to values they won’t find in the mainstream.