The Thinking Girl’s Barbie?

Slate women discuss the American Girl dolls, books, movie, and message.

Madison Davenport, Abigail Breslin, and Brieanne Jansen in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opened nationwide in theaters this week. The movie, which tells the story of a girl growing up during the Great Depression, is the first big-screen film based on the American Girl dolls. Pleasant Co., founded in 1986 and later sold to Mattel, made American Girl a cultural phenomenon by marketing lines of dolls with their own books, accessories, and even furniture—not to mention a magazine, arts and crafts products, and customized dolls to look like you. Even Barack Obama’s daughters have them—the Obama campaign tells Slate that the two “love American Girl. Malia (who will be 10 on Friday) and Sasha (who is 7) have both the personalized dolls, and others, including Kaya and Samantha.” Four Slate women who grew up with American Girl saw the movie and discussed whether the product line encourages reading or shopping, what kinds of role models the characters make, and more. (Note: This discussion contains mild spoilers about Kit Kittredge.)

Torie Bosch: I’ll kick-start this discussion by asking, Did you have any American Girl dolls as a kid? I had Samantha, Addy, and Felicity, and read the books before committing to the dolls.

Noreen Malone: I had Felicity and, later, a custom doll that looked like me. I think the books came either later or simultaneously.

Amaka Maduka: I had Samantha. And I had most of her books—and read the catalogs religiously.

Nina Shen Rastogi: I never had a doll and don’t think I read any of the books, either—my American Girl experience began and ended with the catalogs. But those catalogs! I loved them. I pored over them. I would read them in bed. They were poetry in themselves. Torie, you had almost as many dolls as the Obama girls! What made you decide to “commit” to the dolls you did?

Torie: It was mostly about the time periods for me. I was always interested in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, hence Felicity, a Virginia girl torn between her patriot family and her loyalist friend, and Addy, who fled to the North to escape slavery. American Girl books helped spark my interest in history—as well as an embarrassing taste for historical fiction that continues to this day with tripe like The Other Boleyn Girl.

Amaka: I chose Samantha, a Victorian-era girl raised by her grandmother, because she seemed to be the most glamorous. I liked her outfits and all her accessories—especially the ice cream maker. But I also really loved her best friend, Nellie. I guess the historical period actually fascinated me too, come to think of it.

Noreen: Did you keep up your fascination with the Victorians through adolescence? Were the American Girls a history gateway drug for you?

Amaka: Yes, and that drug was ecstasy, my friend. I was actually obsessed with Victorian houses, and even befriended a girl because her name was Victoria.

Nina: I blame the American Girl catalog for shaping my tastes. All I want in life is to live in a slightly run-down, 1800s brownstone in Brooklyn and surround myself with vintage tchotchkes.

Noreen: Did having an American Girl doll help make you grow up to be the woman who looks for, say, the perfect Queen Anne chair or a vintage-y Anthropologie outfit, rather than a mod Barbie McMansion and something corseted from Bebe? Or am I reading waaay too much into this?

Amaka: At least for the characters, it isn’t just stuff for stuff’s sake. Most of their possessions reflect something about who the girl is, what historical period she is from, her ambitions.

Nina: What I loved about AG was the attention to historical detail. I was clicking through the Web site just now and came across this description of an outfit you can buy for Addy:

Addy’s Birthday Pinafore & Snood
For her birthday, Addy gets to dress her best in:
An ecru blouse with double-puffed sleeves, rickrack trim, and three tiny buttons
A chocolate-and-cream-checked pinafore
Fancy knit stockings
A fashionable snood trimmed with a satin ribbon and yellow feathers that holds back her hair

Those words are so delicious—ecru, rickrack, snood.

Torie: I visited the American Girl store in Manhattan not long ago, while killing time, and was astounded by all of the stuff for sale. But I don’t know how much it bothers me. The message is so positive—learning about history, feminism, being true to yourself, reading, friendship—that I might be OK with the rampant commercialism.

Noreen: I think you’re getting at a couple things we all find a little troubling—the training in consumerism (the next step was the Delia’s catalog!) and the class issues that the dolls bring up. They’re fairly pricey.

Nina: I like the idea of teaching kids that quality and craftsmanship matter and that investing in special items can be OK. But it doesn’t just stop at the dolls—there’s the outfits, and the furniture, and the tea parties. And that makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels too much like a patina of morality masks conspicuous consumption. It’s the kind of rationalization that makes it seem OK to spend thousands of dollars on, say, a mint-condition Eames chair.

Amaka: Maybe it isn’t so bad that it’s so heavy on the materialism—maybe it teaches responsible, individual consumerism. If you’re going to spend, at least spend wisely and according to your own tastes.

Torie: The American Girl site says that, today, Samantha goes for $90 including a paperback book. I’m actually more uneasy about the way they peddle the “other” stuff—like the $325 “doll storage cabinet.” I’d be interested to know the sales numbers on those items.

One Slatester’schildhood Addy, Felicity, and Samantha dolls

Nina: An AG doll would be a ludicrous purchase for many families. That means that they’re aimed not at all girls, but specifically at middle-class and upper-class girls. When you think about it, Kit Kittredge is a weird Depression story. Her folks are fairly well off. They seem to maintain a relatively “normal” existence throughout this devastating time.

Amaka: I do think that even if you are less well-off, you still can find someone to identify with among the dolls. They aren’t all well-off. They’re just all really lucky. And Kit seems like a catchall character: She’s rich; no wait, she’s poor, but she still has cute stuff, and life’s hard, but it’s fun. It’s very easy to say, “Hey, that’s just like me.”

Torie: The repetition of foreclosure, struggling to make the mortgage payment, layoffs, might hit home for a little girl today whose parents are going through difficult times. Hell, there are even absent parents!

Noreen: It seemed to me like Kit Kittredge was calculated for a sort of broad appeal. If you’re an upper-middle-class kid, you recognize yourself in the beautiful homes and clothes. If you’re from a less well-off family, maybe you identify with the story line of the parents’ jobs in peril, with the foreclosures.

Torie: One of the things I liked about the books and the dolls is that they didn’t shy away from controversial subjects—like in the Samantha book when her friend Nellie talked about a girl’s hair getting yanked out of her head while working at a thread factory. The story ends well for Nellie, but you know it didn’t end well for that other girl.

Noreen: Was it important for all of you to own a doll that looked like you?

Nina: I’m so mad there’s an Asian-American Girl now. Where was she in 1988? I had to make do with the Hawaiian Barbie.

Amaka: I’m black and I loved Samantha, who is white, and my best friend, who looks like Samantha, got Addy, who’s black. I think it’s all a bit random.

Torie: There was no curly-haired half-Jewish doll, but it never bothered me much. Without American Girl, I probably never would have owned a black doll.

Noreen: I had red hair, so did Felicity, and Nancy Drew, and Anne of Green Gables, so I glommed onto them. They were “spunky,” and I began to see myself as spunky.

Nina: The AG world emphasizes that context shapes individual identity. Each of these girls’ narratives is defined by external circumstances: where they grew up, when they grew up, what kind of communities they’re born into. The ethnic AGs—Josefina, who is Hispanic; Addy, who is black; Kaya, who is Native American—are very much defined by their racial identity. Which is certainly historically accurate … but it feels very essentialist to me somehow.

Noreen: Since this is Fourth of July weekend, I think we should talk a little about the American-ness of them. Do they represent shared American values? Or would red and blue staters pick up on different cues from these stories?

Nina: The AGs are actually brilliantly bipartisan … all those wholesome, up-by-your-bootstraps morals wedded to classically Bobo blue-state aesthetics.

Torie: I think the company in its earlier incarnation was very spectrum-friendly, particularly Felicity, the patriot, and Molly, whose stories take place during World War II. But the later additions seem to represent a lot of what conservatives hate—political correctness, multiculturalism, feminism—that sort of thing. A few years ago the company faced protests from the right when it was revealed that it gives money to a reproductive rights group.

Noreen: Aren’t the American Girls in a way the stereotypical superwomen? In Kit, it’s the boy who faints, and the girl who saves the day—but it’s an emotional rescue (hey there, Rolling Stones) more than a physical one. As Kit’s friend says at one point in the movie, “Everyone lives happily ever after, and often with some very nice outfits,” which seems like a good summing up of one aspect of the AG philosophy.

Torie: I think it’s worth noting that if American Girl weren’t the huge moneymaking, influential, successful venture it has become, we wouldn’t have a big-budget movie for little girls coming out this summer with a strong role model their own age. American Girl’s success means that girls get to have a summer blockbuster movie.If you have daughters, will you point them toward or away from American Girl?

Nina: I think I’ll get my kids the catalogs. I miiiight consider getting them a doll, but I’d definitely pair those plodding books with some better kids’ lit.

Noreen: I suppose I would buy the historical dolls and stories, but not the ones that look like you, even though I had one of those. I think that there are better ways for little girls to create a self-myth than by clothing a little mini-me.

Nina: I guess I’m glad that there are alternatives to Barbie out there. But honestly, did any of you ever really feel that Barbie was some monolithic presence in your life? I’m just not entirely convinced the wholesomeness of the AG message balances out the commodity fetishism of it all.

Noreen: The girls at the movie last night said they liked American Girl dolls better than their Barbies.

Nina: But when we asked them which part they liked best, they said “the outfits.” (Or at least one of them did.) You sort of wonder, if we were to visit Kit Kittredge as a grown woman in—what, the late ‘40s or ‘50s?—would she have had the hot career she wanted and the traditional family she finds so important?

Noreen: The beauty of it is that we don’t know—we can create our own version of how they turn out.