An American Girl

So, I'd been planning to eventually post on American Girl books. I had the theme all worked out, too. How every book in the series has a school story, a friend story, a Christmas story, and an adventure/summer story, and how American was it anyway that everyone had to celebrate Christmas? I mean, do they think the little Jewish girls don't have enough trouble at Christmas time without having Samantha have the whole Victorian Christmas tree, etc etc.
But, I was trying to be fair, and it troubled me that I hadn't actually read the Kaya books (Diana was a straight Samantha girl, with a little Kirsten, Addy, and Felicity thrown in). I'd gone so far as to get them out of the library to see how they dealt with a native American situation and Christmas.
Then I saw this.American-girl-rebecca-eyes How intense is it that they give sneak peeks of their dolls?
So, they have a whole new American Girl doll who is Jewish, named Rebecca Rubin (actually the name of a girl I knew in high school, Jewish or not I don't know). And I am sifting through the complicated feelings I have whenever I encounter anything American Girl.
When Diana was first born, I was immediately placed on some evil list that got American Girl catalogs sent to my house by the bucketload. And it made me angry. A $100 doll? Were they kidding? Did they have to make my child into a demographic market-ee so early?
As Diana and Chestnut got older, they treated these catalogs like beloved magazines, cutting out the pictures, choosing which one they would get (we early on made a rule: you can get one when you're 8. No one under 8 should have anything worth $100).
Then an American Girl store opened near where I work, and my heart grew stonier: there is nothing so irritating as hordes of 6-year-olds clutching massive maroon shopping bags or the shiny-haired dolls themselves, swarming the already-choked midtown streets.
But here's what's most intolerable: the books are OK. They really are. They're clearly written by smart, thoughtful people trying to do the right thing, to fight the good fight against the slutty waves of Bratz trying to turn our daughters into mini versions of Paris Hilton.
So why is there something in me that feels like I'm secretly in sympathy with the Bratz?
Because I'm not, I'm really not. I don't want my child's play to be sexualized before she can read. I don't want my child to pierce her navel at 11. Or have a boyfriend and a pair of platform shoes at 12. But there's something so—corporate? Planned? Suspiciously wholesome?—about the American Girls that it makes me uneasy.
Chestnut has picked up the Meet Kaya I left on the coffee table, and is really enjoying it. She's learning from it, and she's interested in Native Americans, and she's just grooving on the whole thing. And I'm glad. I am. And I'm glad, too, that they've seen fit to induct a little immigrant Jewish girl into their powerful corporate machine. I mean, this is the good side of capitalism, right?
So why do I still feel resistant?

10 thoughts on “An American Girl

  1. I had the same rule about turning 8 before my daughter could get one of the dolls. Then I told her she had to read all the 1st books for the historical characters to figure out which one she liked best. She ended up choosing Felicity, which was interesting since my parents live near Williamsburg, and we can capitalize on the historical elements – but in reality, she’s much more like Kit. Ah, well – the allure of long hair will never cease, I suppose.
    I also enlisted all the grandparents on the American Girl birthday. That way, no one was shelling out thousands of dollars, and Maggie received all the books, the doll, some outfits, and the DVD. She has her moments where she doesn’t play with them for a long while, but she devours the books, and has read every characters entire series.

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  2. I never was a doll person myself and neither was my daughter, though the catalogs came with great regularity to our house from the moment she was born. So I never had to agonize over whether or not to get one. And I guess – no, I’m sure – I would have preferred an American girl doll to a Barbie.
    But…I just hate being spoon-fed things, you know? I would prefer, if I had a girl who wanted a doll, to be able to go to a nice store and have her chose a pretty, nonsexualized, “looks like a little girl” doll…like the old Sasha dolls from Creative Playthings.
    Because ultimately it seems to me that the American Girl doll is too often about owning every little object that goes with them.
    I really like you blog, by the way. Haven’t been reading it for long but I love it. And The Diamond in the Window is one of my favorite books.

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  3. I think I’m a member of the first generation that grew up with these dolls. I was the target age when American Girl first began. I read all the books (although at that time, it was only Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) and desperately longed for a Samantha doll. I begged and begged, but the bottom line is that we couldn’t afford her, so I never got one.
    I am 30 years old now and have an almost 7 month old little girl. I’ve been collecting all the books through secondhand stores (or all the ones I can find second hand…I’ll eventually have to shell out for some of them) and my husband and I have already agreed that she will have to read ALL the books before she can pick a doll. Luckily we are (at least for now) in a financial place where a doll would not be an out of line expense for a birthday or Christmas.
    I don’t know that I agree entirely with your statement that no one under 8 should own anything that costs more than 100 dollars, though.

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  4. What will you do if you collect all the books and she doesn’t even like them?? That’s what happened with me and my Mom’s love of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’. If it didn’t have dragons, I wasn’t interested.

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  5. I, too, remember the first wave of American girl books but I was so not a doll girl so I didn’t realize dolls were part of the equation until a couple years ago.
    I’d have to read the books again, but I’m intensely suspicious of them. Something to the effect of propagating an idea of an America that never existed or idealizing our country’s past while totally ignoring the rest of the world. I don’t know.
    I am incredibly thankful that when our daughter was born we didn’t end up on that tragic mailing list. We’ve had 2 years of no American girl dolls–maybe we’ll make it 20?

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  6. I had serious misgivings about the American Girl world — the dolls, the books, etc. But my sweet daughter (now 8) begged and pleaded, and we both got hooked. The books are not bad — yes, they are formulaic, but they do teach her about history and other cultures, and they stress good values. They are certainly an improvement over the Disney Channel stuff that my daughter covets — Hannah Montana makes me ill, and she’s so popular. Our family just watched the latest American Girl movie over the weekend. It was about bullying, and it was really useful in discussing this issue with my daughter in a safe way.

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  7. When I was a kid, I played with Barbie dolls long after I’d given up baby dolls – well into sixth grade, as I recall (and those Barbies had some PG-13 lives, lemme tell you).
    It seems backwards these days: girls play with Barbies when they’re four or five and too fumble-fingered even to dress the dolls in their hoochie outfits (not the princess clothes, the contemporary stuff). Then when they’re six or seven they start playing with the more-relatable American Girl dolls. I’m generally suspicious of corporate America targeting kids and the AG stuff is way expensive, but I appreciate that it’s fairly wholesome and leave it to the grandparents to shell out if they so desire. My daughter has Kit, but she almost never plays with her (or any other dolls); she spends her time reading, doing craft projects, and watching TV (curse you, Hannah Montana).

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  8. I am 29 and was also in the first generation of people to whom American Girl dolls were marketed, but I never even asked for one–they were that much out of my price range. Also, I don’t think they got *very* popular until the early 1990s, after I was ten and less interested in dolls. My grandmother did get me my first/only nice little girl doll as a present for my eighth birthday–same as my older sister. We had a lot of fun making clothes for her together. If I ever have girls (hope to get married and have kids someday!), I would think about buying them the dolls, but then have making accessories be a fun project to do together. You can do a lot with old holey socks, scraps of cloth, cardboard boxes, and contact paper!

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  9. To make a point at the long-armed reach of corporate influence… these “American Girl” dolls are even popular in Canada now. We are not even Americans and I see 7 and 8 y.o. girls at my daughter’s CANADIAN school with these dolls under their arms! I mean, would you send your kid to school with $100 bill in their backpack? All this does is serve to separate and define by “things”. In this day and age I think it’s tragic.

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