Many recent surveys suggest that Americans are lamentably weak when it comes to knowing the history of their own country. This story by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post adds some more evidence and perhaps suggests one of the causes. The popular American Girl doll series used to tell stories about girls in such historical settings as the Civil War and Colonial America, and playing with these dolls would give children at least some familiarity with historical events and periods. No more. In an effort to become 'relevant', the new American Girl "Looks Just Like You":
Even more terrible things are happening to the American Girl doll brand than you thought
Dear American Girl,
What, what, what are you doing?
The Atlantic points out the dreadful change that the once-famed catalog of historic yet personable dolls is slowly undergoing. Forget Samantha the Victorian girl, Molly the plucky World War II doll with the Victory Garden, or original Colonial girl Felicity. Felicity’s been retired to the Upstate Doll Farm. So’s Samantha. Kirsten the pioneer? Gone. Instead, get a Girl of the Year, or a My American Girl who Looks Just Like You.
Full disclosure: I never had an American Girl doll but I got the catalog every month, read it cover-to-cover, and subscribed to the magazine. My parents offered to buy me Kirsten, the one who looked like me, but she had, in my 9-year-old opinion, a boring story. Her adventure was being part of a pioneer family. Trek across the country with your Scandinavian family in a slow, bulky vehicle without air-conditioning? I did that every summer.
But compared to what’s on the market now, Kirsten was adventure itself. At one point in her story, someone dies of cholera. She has to tangle with winter and rough conditions and being forced to dress up as Santa Lucia.
Here is the story of McKenna, the 2012 American Girl of the year: ”Ten-year-old McKenna Brooks has always excelled in school and in gymnastics. So when her grades suddenly fall, McKenna begins to doubt herself. With the help of a new friend, McKenna learns to focus on her strengths to overcome her challenges, one step at a time. But just as she begins to shine in school, McKenna is sidelined with a gymnastics injury. Will McKenna be able to springboard to success again?”
Maybe, as the Atlantic piece suggests, this is because Mattel now owns the American Girl dolls and is reshaping the brand in response to consumer demand.
Maybe we get the dolls we deserve. After all, the redirection has been to shape them in our own image. You can wear what Saige (yes, SAIGE) is wearing. Saige, in turn, will have no more adventure than is readily available to you. You can indulge in a spa day! A spa day, with Saige. No more trekking across the prairie or dealing with wartime rationing.
But is it choice or marketing? Maybe if they made more of an effort to sell us on history, we’d buy it.
You grow up with your dolls and through your dolls (or action figures, or stuffed animals, or whatever is your drug of choice). You use them to navigate miniature worlds. Limiting the range of their canonical adventures to the present-day, first-world problems of these little girls who are Just Like You is a big mistake. Sure, maybe you picked your first American Girl doll because she resembled you – actually a lot has been written on this – but the whole point was to give you an entry point to history. Felicity or Samantha or Addy reminded you that, during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and all the fascinating important times of history, there were Girls Almost But Not Quite Like You. You could see yourself in history! You could engage with the biggest moments of the past!
In “Meet Addy,” “Addy and her mother make a terrifying journey north, holding fast to their dream that the war will end and one day, their family will be together again in freedom.” That’s the Civil War, mind you. In “Meet Molly,” “World War Two turns Molly’s family upside down. While her father is away, war threatens to break out on the McIntires’ home front, too.”
Contrast what Saige is facing: ”Saige Copeland loves spending time on her grandma’s ranch, riding horses and painting. Her school made the tough choice to cut art classes, which means she’s lost her favorite subject. So when her grandma decides to organize a “save the arts” fundraiser and parade to benefit the school, Saige jumps on board. She begins training her grandma’s beautiful horse, Picasso, for his appearance in the parade. Then her grandma is injured in an accident, and she wonders what she can do to help. Can she ride Picasso in the parade and make her grandma proud? Can Saige still raise money to protect the arts at school?”
OH GOD! NOT THE ARTS BUDGET! THAT’S LIKE WORLD WAR II AND SLAVERY ALL ROLLED INTO ONE!
As Hamlet says, “what judgment Would step from this to this?”
Now — actual stories are being replaced with bland, featureless faces. The My American Girls have spawned a series of books where you fill in the blanks of her adventures. For instance, in “Bound For Snow,” “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character of this interactive story, a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime.” Yes, what a stretch of the imagination it is to pretend to be a girl who loves to be outside in wintertime. “She’s teaching Honey the golden retriever how to pull a dog sled, but the pup just doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it.” How tough to put yourself in her shoes. A golden retriever? But you’ve got a chocolate Lab! What a great exercise.
There’s also “Braving The Lake” — in which, spoiler alert, “Readers can imagine themselves as the main character, a girl who loves swimming at the pool but is terrified of the lake.” (Remember when Addy escaped from ACTUAL SLAVERY?)
Dolls Just Like Us. Is this really what we want? The image is embarrassing — privileged, comfortable, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems that a bake sale wouldn’t solve. Life comes to them in manageable, small bites, pre-chewed. No big adventures. No high stakes. All the rough edges are sanded off and the Real Dangers excluded. It’s about as much fun as walking around in a life vest.
Yes, I know there are plenty worse toys out there. Still, it pangs. These dolls were once a stand-out.
Of course, that’s history. We’ve moved past that.