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.
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.