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American Girl dolls: what do they represent?

American Girl dolls: what do they represent? published on 4 Comments on American Girl dolls: what do they represent?

Prompting by the recent theatrical release of Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl, some Slate writers have an informal discussion about the series of dolls that spawned said movie.

Pleasant Company started off with three “American Girls” in 1986. Kirsten was from 1854, Samantha from 1904 and Mollie from 1944. The dolls came with scads of historically accurate and really expensive accessories, as well as mediocrely written stories in which they demonstrated how caring, assertive and morally sound they were. The Pleasant Company line soon exploded in popularity, resulting in its inevitable buyout by Mattel and the current proliferation of American Girls in all colors from all time periods. Unfortunately, they all have the same poorly articulated bodies and scary faces, with round eyes way too far up on their heads, flat noses and teeth ready to BITE YOU!

Having read AG books and catalogs in the past and having long sustained an interest in dolls, I read with avidity said Slate discussion about the messages of the AG empire. The participants seem to agree that the AG empire promotes conspicuous consumption by showing an upper bourgeois lifestyle in its books and pricing items so that only rich people can afford them. One commenter, Nina, has the following insight:

I like the idea of teaching kids that quality and craftsmanship matter and that investing in special items can be OK. But it doesn’t just stop at the dolls—there’s the outfits, and the furniture, and the tea parties. And that makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels too much like a patina of morality masks conspicuous consumption. It’s the kind of rationalization that makes it seem OK to spend thousands of dollars on, say, a mint-condition Eames chair. 

The phrase “patina of morality [masking] conspicuous consumption” is spot-on. AG empire books always end with morals that promote friendship, acceptance, kindness, bravery, loyalty — like some class-, race- and gender-blind version of the Girl Scouts. However, the books and dolls exist to reinforce each other, which is to say that the books ultimately do not wish to promote morality. The books actually subserve greater consumption of AG goods.

I noticed the problems of class and consumption in the AG empire when I was reading the Pleasant Company catalog back when I was 8 or 10. Of course, I wasn’t talking with sophistication about patinas of morality, but I did notice several things about the catalog that really pissed me off. For one thing, dolls and their accessories were sold separately. [They still are.] Since the dolls were frequently shown using their accessories, I had assumed that dolls and accessories came in one package. I regarded the separation thereof as a misleading disappointment and a way to get more money out of people.

Another example of implicit bourgeois assumption that I noticed early on appeared in the owner-sized outfits sold along with the dolls. One winter outfit inspired by the Kirsten doll included a pair of soft, moccasin-like boots. The copy described them as “perfect for apres-ski.” I was puzzled by this until I figured out that “apres-ski” meant “post-skiing,” and even then I was still puzzled. In my personal experience, I and all the other skiers I knew put on their regular, everyday boots after skiing. In my frame of reference, there was no need for specific apres-ski footwear. The advertising copy clued me in to the fact that some people somewhere did have specialized post-skiing boots, which meant that they probably had more money than I did, which meant that the advertising copy was not talking to me. I didn’t end up wishing for apres-ski boots in an aspirational sense; I just ended up annoyed. Now I can finally articulate why.


“Patina of morality” is a good phrase. I’m going to have store that away in my brain for future use. It’s relevant to so many topics, especially the upcoming election and almost anything tangentially related to reproductive rights.

I remember reading a few American Girl books. I never had the dolls, but I thought the kid sized costumes were really neat. I was particularly partial to anything pre-1900. I never really wanted any of the stuff though. Looking at the intricately recreated worlds in the glossy pages was enough for me. If I couldn’t actually be physically transported to 1860 to have an adventure, I wasn’t really interested. Plus I preferred battling with She-Ra or building block towns that I would ravage with famine and natural disaster.

But I digress….

I was disappointed when the movie came out because of the doll they picked. Kit, from America’s golden age. White, squeaky clean, blonde, with white ankle socks, The most boringly palatable character from an era that U.S audiences instantly get wet over. Why not an American Girl from the slave era, the industrial revolution, or even a pioneer girl a la Little House on the Prairie?


Hmmm. I disagree with your interpretation — I think the ads are using strong images to show that only *you* can control whether you are silenced or whether your voice is heard. I would find the Jessica Alba image potentially problematic if I hadn’t seen the whole series — but I think it’s saying that taking away your own right to vote (by inaction and silence), you are doing violence to yourself as an individual.

I’m okay with these, even though they certainly provoke a strong visceral initial reaction.

— A <3

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