If the holidays can be counted on for one thing – regardless of region or cultural moment – it’s turning back the clock for a month or so, and offering up brightly-wrapped nostalgia. Nostalgia literally means the “pain from an old wound,” but today its connotations include both sentimentality and irreverence for the past. The holiday season often brings back memories of childhood, as children are uniquely centered throughout the pervasive traditions of Christmas. From gingerbread worlds to flying reindeer, the activities and mythologies of Christmas are playful and childlike. And, of course, there are those festive reliquaries of personal meaning, significant to children and adults alike: toys.
Toys themselves spark nostalgia in all their meanings, and can serve as useful markers of the zeitgeist. In thinking about this year’s holiday season, and thinking back to my past few decades of Christmases, it’s striking to see how the iconographic toys that still permeate our pop culture have aged. Toys have so much to do with identity, and evolving discourses on gender, appearance, and social position also mean we have fresh eyes with which to regard some of those Christmas classics.
For girls in this country – and in this century – there are a few inescapable case studies for comparing “then” to “now.” All these toys were originally designed by women, though they still exist in a world that is fundamentally not designed by women. There’s the hyper-femme and highly-debated world of My Little Pony, there’s the newly-re-politicized propagandist realm of American Girl Dolls, and there’s the boss bimbo herself: Barbie.
So, let’s look at American Girl Dolls.
American Girl Dolls began by doing one thing right; a thing we can now more readily take for granted; a thing that was once rare at best, entirely neglected at worst. They have taught American history from the female perspective.
Founder Pleasant T. Rowland introduced the Dolls in 1986. That’s roughly 30 years after Ruth Handler introduced Barbie, and 15 years following Linda Nochlin’s game-changing essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The time was ripe to revisit the old standards of storytelling. It would no longer suffice to teach American history exclusively through patriarchal stories like the “Founding Fathers.” A driving mission of American Girls Dolls has always been to acknowledge and celebrate the roles of women and girls throughout our nation’s history.
And so, after a trip to Colonial Williamsburg sparked an interest in “living history,” Pleasant created the American Girl Dolls (aka AGD) as a way for young girls to find value and meaning in history by seeing it acted out by their “surrogates” with dolls representing girls their age. What Pleasant could not have anticipated was how immediately girls would identify with the dolls and fall in love with history through play and through reading the middle-reader book series that accompany each character.
Most of the first AGD characters released in the 1980s and 1990s hail from the eras of American history that are most frequently studied and depicted in film and pop culture.
Most of the first AGD characters released in the 1980s and 1990s hail from the eras of American history that are most frequently studied and depicted in film and pop culture. These first stories offered optimistic, patriotic accounts of the last roughly 200 years. Examples include Felicity living in a Virginia colony in 1774 (cultivating nostalgia for the dawn of the American Revolution with her candlestick and red curls in a bonnet); Kirsten starting a pioneer’s journey in 1854 (complete with covered wagons and romantic illustrations of the Great Plains), and Molly, a frequently star-spangled schoolgirl keeping her spirits up during World War II (another historical moment of heightened national pride).
American Girl Dolls inspire a strong sense of self in part because of their realistic, yet accessible design. They are 18” tall, and light enough to be held by small children. They have soft plush bodies, hard plastic arms and legs detailed down to the smallest fingernail, and voluminous, very brushable hair. Even with their traditional blinking doll eyes and enigmatic smiles staring off into the middle distance, American Girl Dolls are rarely considered to have that eerie unsettling quality known in toys and animation as the “uncanny valley.” With their pillow torsos – absent of any specific anatomy – they are just abstract enough to be non-threatening. And the emphasis on exquisite historical wardrobes and chapter books helps a child stay focused on the narrative aspect of her doll. Kirsten’s not waiting sinisterly in the corner of your room for you to fall asleep. She has bigger things to think about; she’s on the Oregon Trail.
American identity cannot be summarized by something as sweet as a historical doll.
American Girls Dolls have an innocent premise, but there is a great challenge that becomes brighter and more mainstream with each passing anniversary: American identity cannot be summarized by something as sweet as a historical doll. The original dolls tell a narrow and white-washed version of American history. Contrary to the company’s mission, most real-life American girls still do not see their heritage represented, and they do not yet get to play with dolls that look like them.
Understanding the breadth of these issues requires a lot of further reading. A helpful jumping off point is Brit Bennett’s 2015 article for the Paris Review: “Addy Walker, American Girl.” Brit gives a graceful and personal account of the lovability of AGD, and points out how while all the girls face historical struggles, Addy’s journey as an enslaved nine-year-old is strikingly more “harrowing” and “traumatic.” The article elaborates on the critical history around Black representation in American doll history, and is well worth a deep read. As for toys themselves, Brit implores us to consider the onus that is placed on children when we unpack the politics of American Girl Dolls: “Who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms?”
In 1995, the company launched the “American Girl of Today” doll – also known as the “Just Like You” doll – allowing buyers to design a doll by choosing her complexion. To this day, the love of history and nurturing of education and pride for girls remains present as the company has evolved. Over the years, new dolls have been added, pulling in wider perspectives on what it means to be an “American Girl.” We now have dolls like Rebecca (a first generation Russian-Jewish girl from 1914), Kaya (a Nez Perce girl from 1764, before Western colonizers arrived to her region), and Joss (the first American Girl Doll to speak American Sign Language).
As the first generations who played with them age and grow wiser, meme-ists, trolls, and yes, artists, have found new potential in the iconographic dolls as vehicles for political satire.
Today’s revival of AGD culture is delightfully absurd and surprisingly profound. As the first generations who played with them age and grow wiser, meme-ists, trolls, and yes, artists, have found new potential in the iconographic dolls as vehicles for political satire. This internet phenomenon has seen a great uptick since the overturning of Roe v. Wade – in the Dobbs decision of 2022 – which has forced so many of us to reconsider complacency in our human rights. One of the most recent catches was the Twitter scandal in which many “official accounts” were hacked. During this spree, the “official” American Girl Doll account made a confession: “Felicity owned slaves.” There is debate over whether this fact is canon to Felicity’s own story, but there is no denying that it is canon in the story of her Virginia Revolutionary War setting.
Anonymous Instagrammer “Hellicity Merriman” – an originator of the AGD politics trend – posts photos of the dolls with the caption “We need An American Girl Doll who…” followed by deadpan, ironic statements. Examples include “We need An American Girl Doll who fired the first shot at the Battle of Lexington” (the first shot of the American Revolution); “We need an American Girl Doll who was on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963” (the site of the JFK assassination); and “We need an American Girl Doll who is 27 years old, has no money, no prospects, and is frightened” (a quote from the 2015 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice).
This set of memes clearly pokes fun at how we “honor” women in history, as well as how we prioritize historical narratives. In subsequent months, the account goes on to critique AGD outfits with letter grades, and, most recently, openly criticizes USA political policy with the same blunt delivery and serenely smiling, stylish doll.
Like Barbie, fine artists of all ages have begun incorporating AGD as a piece of their creative lexicon.
Like Barbie, fine artists of all ages have begun incorporating AGD as a piece of their creative lexicon. Take Polish-born art photographer Ilona Szwarc, whose series on American Girls poses real girls with AGDs. In these emotionally-charged portraits, some subjects are engaged in cheery, “twinning” playtime (such as on horseback or in pink beds); others girls convey reticence as they hold dolls that do not look like them, cast their dolls aside to hold each other instead, or stare off, preoccupied and unsmiling.
Sydney Rose Paulsen has a different but equally stylized approach, taking photographs of AGDs posed to recreate famous artworks, pop cultural moments, and characters from film and fiction. In both cases, the artists underpin their striking photographs with a commentary on the performance of American female identity. They ask: What do we recognize without words, and should it be this way? Are we the dolls or the doll makers?
While AGDs are undoubtedly a playful way to interrogate the shortcomings of Americana, even their cultural critics seem to maintain a sense of deep affection for them. That’s because American Girl Dolls did, perhaps, do one more thing right: They invited creativity, and inspired girls to continue building worlds on their own.
I’ve never known anyone who had an American Girl Doll and didn’t make her at least one new prop, accessory, or costume piece. The craftsmanship of the dolls is as impeccable as their detailed clothing, allowing us to create our own workshops. If you look on Etsy today, you’ll see thousands of items in hundreds of shops inspired by AGD: custom paint jobs, hairstyles, replica clothing, and miniature objects all exemplify how this tactile world of the 18” dolls has some serious staying power and has become an art form unto itself.
© Allison Green (12/22/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®
FF2 is proud to post Alli Green’s three-part series on toys. This is part two on American Girls Dolls. Follow link to read part one on “Boss Bimbo” Barbie. Part three on My Little Pony will be coming soon.
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
AGD Kit Kittredge is a special favorite of multiple members of the FF2 Media team. A child of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kit gained new relevance after the Great Recession which began in 2008, and sadly, once again, during the COVID crisis. Follow this link to read Jan Lisa Huttner’s interview with Valerie Tripp (creator of the Kit storyline). Follow this link to read Nicole Ackman’s tribute to Patricia Rozema (the filmmaker who brought Kit to the big screen). And, finally, follow this link to read the Lasker Sisters – Amelie & Julia – discuss how Kit teaches us how to help others in crisis.
Read Brit Bennett’s Essay on Addy Walker and the story of how she came to create newest AGD: Claudie.
Read about dolls and the “uncanny valley”.
Explore Ilona Szwarc’s “American Girls”
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: American Girl Doll Molly Bennet. Courtesy of Mattel.
Bottom Photo: A host of American Girl Dolls. Courtesy of Mattel.