Doll Sales and Moral Tales

Adrianna Groth

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl will come to theatres everywhere on July 2. Just in time for the most American holiday, the movie is a dose of all-American patriotism and morality.  It also brings to the screen a character who began her career as one of the plastic American Girl dolls that have dominated the high-end of doll-dom for the last twenty years.

The National Association of Scholars doesn’t usually review dolls and movies based on dolls, but we do keep our finger in the cultural wind. The American Girls dolls track pretty closely with the rise of multiculturalism and identity politics, and they may well have something to do with the predisposition in these directions that many young women bring with them to college. NAS executive director Peter Wood wrote about them six years ago. I go a step further: I grew up with one American Girl doll as a favorite. 

Reviews of Kit Kittrege so far have made it out to be an actual children’s movie—“guileless” and “wholesome”—by contrast with the innuendo-laced fare that winks towards older viewers. Kit is, presumably, free of the coy messaging in Shark Tale (a vegetarian, pacifist shark who seeks the freedom to be “different”) or the double entendres of Shrek (a satire of Disney). Some reviews accuse the film of sweetening up the Great Depression, but I can’t imagine that a little girl’s movie would be the better for Steinbeck-style depictions of dust bowl desperation. A few called the film “preachy” and “moralizing,” others applauded it for its sense of “social justice.”

Kit Kittredge was added to the American Girl doll collection in 2000. The American Girl doll series started in 1986 when Pleasant T. Rowland, a former teacher, reporter, and textbook writer, was inspired by a visit to colonial Williamsburg.  The first three dolls produced by the Pleasant Company were Kirsten, the Swede whose immigrant family is settling in Minnesota; Samantha, a  Victorian orphan living with her wealthy grandmother in a Westchester County-ish New York; and Molly, who lives in Illinois during World War II.  Felicity, Addy, Josephina, Kit, Kaya, and now Julie were added intermittently over the years, each with an elaborate back story presented through a series of six books. Ten years ago Mattel bought the Pleasant Company and has further expanded the franchise. Mattel added the four new characters and also materialized the main characters’ friends.

The American Girls also have their own stores, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, which have become tourist destinations.   According to one article, shoppers spend an average of 4 hours in the store. Shop for your doll, shop for yourself, have some lunch, get the doll’s hair done, and watch an in-house theatre production.  The mania doesn’t stop here. Nearby hotels offer a turn-down service for the dolls in their doll beds, and doll bathrobes. Unbroken dolls can visit the doll clinic for a “wellness” check. 

Ella Taylor writing in the Village Voice calls the American Girl Store a “posh emporium, which peddles multiculti feminism with an outrageous price tag.”

Taylor explained that she won’t bring her daughter to the store on principle. She says, it “Could be worse, I guess, but with their sturdy ethnic heroines—African-American, Native American, and every other American you can think of—overcoming poverty and discrimination, the American Girl books are as predictable as they are proto-feminist and inclusive.” Predictability, however, isn’t the worst of it. Taylor sees deep into those dolls eyes and they stare back at her the horrifying truth: “corporate capitalism.” The rhetoric of her dismay warrants notice: “Creeped out by row upon row of homogenized mannequins with staring Stepford Wife eyes and designer threads—[Taylor gets] nauseous within 50 feet of that posh emporium.”

I knew there was a good reason to like these dolls.   

As the younger Miss Taylor will never know, they are made to withstand the most smothering of mothering with their soft bodies and chunky plastic limbs.  I can’t dismiss the company quite as easily as her mother does, because at seven I was the proud owner of Samantha. By the time I got the doll for my birthday, I had already read the books, and I knew all about the challenges of being a sumptuously rich orphan who has heartfelt compassion for Nellie O’Malley, the neighbor’s servant girl.

Looking back, the books did present a sort of honeysuckle handful of identity politics. Traces of feminism and consciousness of class inequality are woven in as these girls struggle to do “the right thing.” But I was oblivious to this as a child, and now when I page through the catalog I am arrested by declarations such as, the company’s hope that the Kaya doll, a 1764 Nez Perce girl, will “increase your daughter’s awareness of compassion, tolerance, and respect for nature that lie at the heart of many native cultures.” (Whoever wrote this apparently didn’t know much about aboriginal American peoples.) The “messages” built into the American Girl dolls strike me now as fairly obvious but not especially likely to distract from the fun. The lessons in tolerance and diversity may have been intended more to reassure PC parents than they were to raise an army of jumper-clad multiculturalists. 

What sort of notions of social justice did I come away from those books with? On the one hand, I really wanted my own poor Nellie O’Malley, whom I could shower with benevolence. I was ready to give her dolls, bake her cookies, and offer her shelter from child labor if only I could have my own charity case.  Alas, opportunities to display my magnanimity proved elusive. Waifs were hard to come by in suburban San Diego. But maybe I didn’t really get the benignant message.  I still couldn’t understand, for example, why my neighbor treasured her Molly doll—the one who wears glasses and isn’t as pretty as the other American Girls.

Samantha inspired me to learn to sew and embroider and to dry flowers, but I can’t say that I found my identity in these books. I don’t think of myself as a sewing-embroidering-flower-drier. I found more of myself in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Steeped in Wilder’s world since age 5, I consider her childhood to be my own. After all, we grew up together. I read those books over and over again.

While I enjoyed Meet Samantha, Samantha Learns a Lesson, Changes for Samantha, Samantha’s Surprise, and Samantha-does-something- or-other-almost-as-well-as Martha-Stewart (I made that one up)they struck even my seven, eight, nine-year-old self as formulaic. I could feel the difference between those books and other girl books like The Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Caddie Woodlawn, and Little Women. The classic children’s books teach morality and propriety fluidly as part of the unfolding of the characters’ lives. I could never refer to a scene in one of the classics as an “object lesson.” A cautionary tale? Maybe. An incident where moral behavior was rewarded and immoral behavior punished? Plenty. But rarely did they end with the protagonist didactically restating the moral lesson to friend or father. The American Girls’ stories all too often keep their moral lessons handy in their apron pockets. I learned more about kindness and fair judgment from Laura Ingall’s enmity with uppity rival Nellie Oleson than from Samantha’s friendship with helpless Nellie O’Malley.

Louisa May Alcott moralizes in a different way. Marmee (of Little Women) is a progressive woman; an habitué of transcendentalist gatherings, and decidedly more advanced than her neighbors. On Christmas morning the little March women decide to give their special breakfast, even the butter, to their poorer neighbors. They feel the dearth of wartime, but they see that it is the kind thing to do. With hungry stomachs and only partially generous hearts, they give away the food. Their wealthy neighbor observes their kindness and sends an abundant breakfast their way. When it is done, the 4 girls and their Marmee are glad they did it, and the story moves on. The American Girls’ stories, by contrast, rarely rely on the reader’s moral intuitive.   When Kristen-Samantha- Molly-Felicity-Addy-Josephina-Kit-Kaya-Julie performs an act of kindness, her altruism is spelled out with excruciating clarity.

Perhaps the heavy-handedness of the moralizing in the American Girls’ stories reflects the contentious nature of the claims. The dolls are meant to speak, after all, not for encompassing virtues such as self-control and fair-mindedness, but for more up-to-date conceptions of moral right: class equality, social justice, anti-sexism, and resistance to racial oppression. These are complicated matters and The Pleasant Company-cum-Mattel-Corporation may not want to risk an eight year old coming to the wrong conclusion. What if Samantha, true to her moment in history, turned out to be a little Social Darwinist? What if instead of always rising above the prejudices of their times and places, they took them in as natural? Classic children’s literature avoids such complications by keeping its characters at some distance from social problems. The American Girl, however, has activist ideals and plunges right in. 

In 2005, The American Girl Company roused the displeasure of some of its customers by raising money for Girls, Inc., an advocacy group that supports abortion. American Girls claimed that its donations were designated especially for sports and intellectual projects but quietly broke with Girls, Inc. 

I am fond of the American girl dolls, though I am suspicious of Josephina, Kit, Kaya, and Julie—the newcomers since my day. Julie, the child of the 70s, seems especially ideological: little more than a convenient platform for environmentalism, feminism, and multiculturalism. She saves eagles, plays on boys’ basketball teams, and chooses a deaf running mate when she aspires to the student body presidency. All fine things, I suppose—unless you are worried about the accelerating decline in boys’ interest in school. Julie never rises above being a prop for a series of lessons in social change. 

Despite the seeping in of tiresome identity politics, American Girl does do a lot of things right. With their chubby cheeks, spirited spunk, and untiring good deeds, the American Girls are the wholesome alternative in the marketplace of dolls. Your other choices? 

Bratz with vixen eyes and vampy threads.  Barbie, with her improbable anatomy and more vapid consumerism.

I guarantee that Kirsten, Samantha, Molly and company will make much better playmates for your daughters. I’ll also venture to guess that girls who grow up playing with American Girls dolls have a better chance of making something of their college years. Ella Taylor at The Village Voice has it wrong. American Girl dolls don’t teach conformity to corporate capitalism. They instead offer glimpses of children who are sturdy, rooted, and determined to master their circumstances. They evoke a sense of purpose beyond their veneer of PC piety.   Not a perfect toy for our times, but perhaps a better one than we have any right to expect.


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