“American” Girls

     When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me my first American Girl doll, Kirsten, who supposedly emigrated from Sweden.  She was always my mom’s favorite, because she looked like me: light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.  And her name was similar.  For the next three years, my grandmother bought me a new doll every Christmas.  They were pretty expensive even then, but they were also high-quality.  The great thing about these dolls was that they were collectors’ items, but as a kid I could still play with them, because they wouldn’t break.  My friend, Emily, and I spent many hours playing with those dolls.  They had different roles when interacting with each other.  Kirsten and Felicity were the friends, Samantha was the snob, because she had the most ornate clothing, and Molly was outcasted, because she wore glasses.  I shudder to remember this, but I’m sure making her the outcast mirrored my own experiences in late elementary school.  And there wasn’t any redemption for Molly either.  We couldn’t imagine anything beyond Molly’s unhappiness.  The American Girl collecting ended the year after Grandma died.  My sister was kind enough to buy me Addy that year, both as a remembrance of my grandmother and maybe as a bridge doll between childhood and adolescence.
     Anyway, my niece, Katie, is turning eight, so her other aunt and I partnered up to buy an American Girl doll set for her.  As if the company is not making enough money, they now have best friends for the most popular dolls.  (I should point out that
Molly also has a best friend, so the company was more positive about her fate than we were).  We bought Katie the Julie collection, because she wanted her the most.  It also amused me that Julie was just a few years older than her mother, Frances.  And like Frances, Julie’s favorite toy is a Barbie doll head.
     I asked James if his granddaughter, Dejah, also liked dolls, and he said she did.  For a fleeting moment, I thought about buying her the Addy doll too, since Addy is their only African-American.  For a second I honestly thought of myself as an emancipated sort of person bringing this doll to this kid and helping her learn about history.  But then there were two things that bothered me about this scenario.  The first is that Addy moves from North Carolina (one of the Carolinas, but I’m pretty sure it’s North Carolina) to Philadelphia where she lives out her stories.  As a white northern child, that made sense to me, and I was naïve enough to think at the time that we in the north were the good people who opposed slavery and helped African Americans toward equality.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the exploitation of workers and the horrible discrimination that occurred here.  But as a kid the stories gave me the feeling that Addy had escaped from the bad side to the good side.  But Dejah lives in North Carolina, and I wonder how a story like that would affect her.  (I should add that I also don’t know her very well, so it’s too risky a call to make as a stranger).  The second thing wrong with the scenario is that these dolls are marketed to white girls.  How do I know?  Because there are white dolls representing every possible turn of events in American history, while Addy is the collection’s only black doll.  And as of yet I’m pretty sure there aren’t any mixed-race dolls at all.  There is one http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/static/kayadoll.jsf/title/Kaya/saleGroupId/0/uniqueId/5/nodeId/11/webMenuId/5/LeftMenu/TRUEnative American, one Latina, one recently added Jewish doll, one Asian who is the friend doll of Julie.  They alone represent their entire cultures’ histories along with Addy.  Also everyone in this group except the Asian friend doll comes alone.  Although they have friends in the stories, those friends aren’t sold as dolls the way the white friends are.
     If I ever have a daughter I can tread this more carefully and figure out a way to pass on the tradition of these dolls and still communicate to her that these histories are organic and that they do change and evolve.  I can also point out to her that the North isn’t the good side, just a different side.  But for a kid who is related to me through a few random circumstances, I better leave it alone.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Kristen, congratulations on your blog!! I get that you want to continue a tradition with your niece. Why do it with high-priced commercial toys? Why not do it with books or some dolls that are handcrafted or who reflect better your sentiments on diversity and inclusion? Organic indeed; tradition can assume multiple forms and perhaps what you want to do is show a little girl that an older relative thinks she is special and lovable and also the recipient of something that means something to the giver?

    • Well, it is a tradition that means something to me, even though I criticize aspects of it. I think partly because those toys make me think of my grandmother and partly because those books gave me some good mother-daughter time. So I don’t want to discontinue it, just rework it if I should ever have my own child. In the case of my niece, the continuation of the tradition paid homage to my sister’s willingness to keep it up after my grandmother died, and the doll is vaguely reminiscent of some aspects of my sister’s childhood, so I liked that too. Great question though.

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