Fighting with the Sky

American Girl Dolls [Feminist Flashback Friday]

Posted on: August 28, 2009


Yes, American Girl dolls are still around. But they’ve changed. Here I am talking about the original American Girl dolls, the one that promoted women’s history. A post at Small Strokes reminded me of how much I loved the American Girl dolls growing up:

Remember when there were only a few of them before they were a multi-million dollar national company? Those dolls were so popular among girls because they had their own historical timeline, and the timeline that was taught in schools was just a backdrop to each doll’s stories.

For me, part of feminism is promoting the history of people who are not normally seen in the history books, especially the history of women. I definitely see the American Girl dolls as a part of feminist history, because they had sadly moved away from promoting women’s history to profiting off “modern” dolls (For the purposes of this post, I will be discussing American Girl dolls before the introduction American Girl Today).

When I was growing up, I had the American Girl Samantha (and I was shocked to discover that Samantha is no longer made!). Samantha was an orphan girl growing up in 1904 (she was the Victorian era doll) by her wealthy grandmother in New York. She befriends the “poor servant girl,” Nellie and is eventually adopted, along with Nellie and Nellie’s sisters, by her aunt and uncle. Samantha’s books included themes of women’s suffrage, child labor, and classism.

Back when I was playing with American Girl dolls (in the early – mid 90s), the dolls that were made were Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly; Addy was just being introduced; and towards the end of my time playing with them, the American Girl Today line was starting (I remember getting one from this line that looked like me). American Girl was focused on bringing the history of these girls to “life,” so to speak.

As Ashley from Small Strokes said in the quote above, the American Girl dolls because the highlighted a feminist timeline for girls that only had the mainstream historical timeline as a backdrop. Incorporating women’s history into the mainstream historical timeline (as the American Girl dolls tried to do) is important in fighting the erasure of women. If young girls can’t look back in history and see someone that resembled themselves, they might not feel as if they have a place in society or that society does not value them as much. For dolls and books that were targeted towards young girls, American Girl took on some very important issues, such as classism, women’s suffrage (both in the case of Samantha) as well as slavery, racism, and war.

The American Girls dolls were an important part of my childhood. But they were definitely not perfect. For one thing, the American Girls dolls were definitely a sign of status. As the American Girl dolls have grown, there has been an increase in diversity. I’m not familiar with the newer dolls, so I’m not sure how issues of racism, classism, etc. are handle in these doll’s stories. I do like that they are trying to provide a role model for girls of diverse backgrounds. But the dolls are not readily available to young girls of all backgrounds because of various constraints, including price. The American Girl dolls are expensive, especially once you get all the clothes, accessories, and books that go with your American Girl. I loved Samantha and I wouldn’t have given her up. But I think that it is also important to integrate non-mainstream historical timelines into children’s lives. While dolls were a great way to do this for me and many other children, it wasn’t for others.

Incorporating women’s history into childhood development is very important to raising awareness about the erasure and oppression of women. I think that the American Girl dolls do a good job at this for the age range that they are marketed towards. The books tackle issues that children’s books do not always handle because of the seriousness of the issues, which I think is great. Exposing children to these issues at a young age encourages the fighting of oppression at later ages. The American Girl dolls of my childhood (pre-American Girl Today) brought women’s history to the forefront for children and encouraged children to think about important issues.

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7 Responses to "American Girl Dolls [Feminist Flashback Friday]"

I too was a total American Girl girl. I had Felicity & Kirsten (<33), though I wasn't able to gather much of their stuff, but I definitely read all the books of Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha & Molly. I read one or two of Kaya when she came out too but I was pretty old at that time.I can't believe they don't make Samantha anymore! All my life i've been a history buff so these books meant a lot to me- it was the one place where I could relate to the history i was studying. I know my Felicity & Kirsten are hiding away in a closet somewhere, but I hope i can still find some of the books & things by the time I have kids who are old enough to enjoy them (oh yes, my boys will read them too! )

They don't make Samantha anymore? How sad! She was the one I had. Regardless, it is nice to see that the dolls have become much more diverse, in time periods as well as ethnicity.I must have read the accompanying books dozens of times, and borrowed books from friends or relatives of mine who had different dolls, etc. They were very much a part of my childhood, showing me that girls can be independent and have great adventures.

Thanks for the link. 😉 Glad you noticed that quote. I was going to write a post about the dolls, but looks like I don’t have to now! I think I told you my mom used to teach a girl-history class using those dolls. I was actually old enough at that point, and looked enough like Samantha (and had dressed up like her for Halloween… the sailor outfit!) that I dressed up like her and appeared as a character for one of the classes. That was really fun.

You know what else I liked about those dolls, besides the history? They didn’t have unattainable bodies like Barbie did.

You are so right about the dolls not being made available to all, though, which is really unfortunate. Have you ever been to the American Girl Place in Chicago? It’s an awesome place, but it is so incredibly expensive!! If you want to have lunch there, they charge you a fee so your doll can sit at the table with you. That’s right, they charge you to have your inanimate doll sit with you while you eat their already over-priced food. I guess we have a long way to go!

The American Girl Dollsare truly some of the most beautiful dolls made today. For whatever reason, the American Girl catalog comes to my parents’ home occasionally, and I cannot resist looking at it. Currently, I have my eyes on: Addy, Maya, Josefina, and Molly. 🙂 I also think the 1970’s doll is cute, too, but, I forget her name.

Awww…. my American Girl isn’t pictured here. I have a Josefina doll. Despite the fact that I’m white I decided to get to the Hispanic one.

i had samantha, too. my favorite part of the books was the “real” history that was at the end of each one. they had pictures of actual child workers and black maids. i know there have been some criticisms of the dolls, especially the way they handled some of the non-white characters later on, but i totally agree with what you’ve said. when they first came out, they were completely unique and gave girls something they’d never seen before: a look at history through eyes they could relate to. most of the characters were lower/middle class and those who weren’t had other struggles to deal with that grounded them in a relateable story.

i don’t think i explained something very well. for anyone not familiar with the book, my third sentence might sound a little odd. my point was that they took elements of the story, like Nellie the child worker and Jessie, Samantha’s grandmother’s maid, and showed you the real people those characters were like. there were pictures and information to tell you more about them beyond what you got in the story. even though the stories were from the pov of a white, upper class child, they made sure to show the realities of the less privileged to the reader. i hope that makes more sense.

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