American Girl crazy!

A gaggle of earnest dolls in historic costumes are threatening to dethrone Barbie. How'd they do it?

By Margaret Talbot

Published May 10, 2005 4:34PM (EDT)

I don't have anything against dolls, but part of me has always found them a little creepy -- their inert perfection, their blinky eyes, the way you find them in odd corners of the house, limbs akimbo, as if dropped from a great height. As a child, I had a Barbie with a frothy black cocktail dress and a Heidi doll I was fond of, though I could never get her hair rigged back up into those cinnamon buns on either side of her head after I'd unbraided it. I was impatient and a klutz, so buttons and bows, especially tiny ones, were a trial. In any case, I was more of a stuffed-animal girl myself, and my daughter, who is five, seems to be one too. She's had a few baby dolls, which she has graced with peculiar names -- Ha-Ha, Pogick -- but her interest in them, though warm, is intermittent. They spend most of their time upside down in the toy basket, missing crucial garments, which is why, I suppose, I don't care much for that genre of children's story in which toys come to life and bemoan their little masters' neglect of them.

So it was something of a surprise to me when, about a year ago, I developed a mild obsession with American Girl dolls. I read the catalogs; I read the books. I made a special trip to American Girl Place, the vast doll emporium in New York, where, without my children, I felt like a doll stalker or one of those self-styled hobbyists with a little too much time on her hands. (I kept thinking of a little amusement park we sometimes go to that has an ominous placard forbidding adults to enter unaccompanied by children.) I drifted by the clusters of mothers and grandmothers and little girls in satin-lined winter coats, their noses pressed against glass cases of doll accessories, their expressions sweetly avid. Sales people kept asking pointedly if they could help me.

Could they? I didn't know. The American Girl story fascinated me partly because of its sheer, almost shocking success. Mostly it fascinated me because of what it seemed to say about American girlhood. Parents I knew with girls on the brink of adolescence seemed anxious to prolong their daughters' childhoods, and some had specific advice on how to do so. Encourage an interest in horses -- that was my sister's idea. She was certainly relieved that her thirteen-year-old spent most of her afternoons mucking out stables and soaring over jumps rather than, say, IMing trash talk to her friends. Sports, in general, other people recommended -- unless they were the kinds of sports that led to extreme dieting. But for more and more families, it seemed, American Girl dolls were the chosen talisman against unwanted precocity.

How odd, when you think of it, that such an idea should exist. Who would have predicted that here in America, at the start of the twenty-first century, girls in high-necked Edwardian dresses, girls in bonnets, girls with labor-intensive chores, would seem so sturdy, competent, and admirable -- so much like the girls we hoped our little girls would want to be? But there it is: perhaps the most popular strategy for protecting your young daughter from Britneyhood and Paris Hiltonville, for holding her from the brink of mall-haunting, 'ho'-dressing tweendom, is to get her interested in American Girl dolls. It is a strategy that involves buying something in order to try and be something: the mother of a girlish girl, an innocent girl, a girl who, at nine or ten, still likes playing with old-fashioned dolls. But then again, there aren't that many options for parents who don't wish to succumb to what the toy industry calls "age compression," or "kids getting older younger" -- KGOY, for short. "The girls these days grow up so fast," a seven-year-old girl's grandmother explained to Newsday in 2003. The woman and her husband were waiting patiently in line at the opening of American Girl Place in Manhattan. They had already paid about four hundred dollars for Kaya, the Nez Perce American Girl doll and various accessories, but they did not regret it. "These toys," the woman said, "help them be girls for a little longer." These toys, she implied, were needed.

American Girl dolls are a very big deal, though if you have sons and no daughters, you may have to take my word for it. But this, in brief, is the story: In 1986, a forty-five-year-old woman with the fateful name Pleasant T. Rowland started a new career as a doll entrepreneur. Rowland had been an elementary school teacher, a TV news reporter, and a textbook author, but in 1984, when she accompanied her husband on a business trip to Colonial Williamsburg, she had something of an epiphany about what she wanted to do next. She loved the material culture of history, the stuff you could touch -- the wood, the pewter, the parchment. Rowland wondered whether there was a new way to market this tangible history to children, and she was still wondering when she headed into a toy store that Christmas to buy dolls for her eight- and ten-year-old nieces. She didn't want Barbie and she wasn't crazy about the other choices either. "Here I was, in a generation of women at the forefront of redefining women's roles," she recalled years later, "and yet our daughters were playing with dolls that celebrated being a teen queen or a mommy."

Soon Rowland hit on the idea of combining her love of history with her drive to create an uplifting girl culture. She would accomplish her aim by marketing dolls that represented little girls from different periods in American history. Eventually there would be eight of them: Kaya, an "adventurous" Nez Perce girl; Felicity, a "spunky" colonial girl; Josefina, a "hopeful" girl living on a New Mexican rancho in 1824; Kirsten, "a pioneer girl of strength and spirit"; Addy, a "courageous" girl who escapes slavery; Samantha, "a bright, compassionate girl living with her wealthy grandmother in 1904"; Nellie, who is Irish and also "practical and hardworking," which is just as well, since she was "hired to be a servant in the house next door to Samantha"; Kit, a "clever resourceful girl growing up during America's Depression"; and Molly, "a lively, loveable schemer and dreamer growing up in 1944." The dolls would be exceptionally well made -- Rowland went all the way to Germany for doll eyes that met her exacting standards for realism -- and outfitted in costumes that could pass some sort of muster for historical accuracy without sacrificing any girl appeal. (Nellie, the servant girl, for instance, would not be clad in anything too practical or gray, nor would Addie, the slave, look too disheveled. Their boots, however, would have a lot of buttons.)

Each girl had a book and eventually a series of books that told her story, and each book was sprinkled with historical details: steamboats, breadlines, Victory Gardens. In a sense, all the girls are pretty much the same girl -- the historical backdrops change, but the same basic personality type cycles cheerfully through all of them. All American Girls are "plucky," "spunky," and mildly adventurous but not overtly rebellious, and they are never misfits. They often have a pesky boy in their lives: a brother or neighbor who annoys them to no end. They are inclined to help the less fortunate, useful to the household economy, talkative without being mouthy, and bright without being egg-headed. Because all the leading characters in the books have a second and more compelling life as dolls (though pleasant enough, the books are not great children's literature), they must be pretty. Some of the most memorable children's book heroines are not pretty -- though it is understood that they may grow up to be handsome or striking or even, to the discerning eye, beautiful -- which is one reason so many generations of awkward, intellectual girls have loved them. Jo in Little Women is famously plain and tomboyish; Meg in A Wrinkle in Time describes herself as "snaggle-toothed," "myopic," and "clumsy," a bespectacled frump in the shadow of her gorgeous mother; even dear Laura in the Little House books compares herself unfavorably to her golden-haired, lady-like sister Mary, who always remembers to save her complexion by wearing her hat. In a freestanding book, a homely or an unkempt heroine is fine. In a book that supplies back story for a doll, it won't do.

The girls of color -- Josefina, Addy, and Kaya -- came later, but neither late arrival nor cultural distinctness did anything to alter their essential personality or, in some respects, their appearance. All American Girl dolls are plump-cheeked and sturdy-legged (the dolls look younger -- and hence cuddlier -- than the girls illustrated in the books), with round eyes and small smiles that reveal precisely two teeth. The catalogs often show girls matched to dolls by race: Addy is snuggled by an African American girl, Josefina by a Hispanic one. But in real life, girls quickly exhibited a happy disregard for such conventions. Kaya, the native American doll, for instance, has entranced girls of various ethnic backgrounds. (She is, after all, a nine-year-old with ready access to fast horses, beaded dresses, and the wide-open plains.)

The concept was, almost from the beginning, a remarkable success. Pleasant Company did not advertise and made its wares available by catalog only, but between September and December of its first year, 1986, it sold $1.7 million worth of products. By 2003 it had sold seven million dolls and eighty-two million books, still without advertising. In 1998 it opened its first store -- American Girl Place -- in Chicago, which became, in its first year, the top-selling store on Chicago's prime shopping street. In 2003 it opened a second American Girl Place, on Fifth Avenue in New York. "Place" was a significant word, for both the Chicago and New York stores were meant to be more than stores: they were destinations for families, safe harbors for innocent girlishness and mother-daughter bonding. Each store featured a doll hospital; a hair salon, where, for fifteen dollars, doll tresses could be styled by an adult; a theater with a live, Broadway-meets-Bransonstyle stage show, in which young actresses playing the American Girls belted out original tunes; and a classy black-and-white-and-fuchsia tearoom, where mothers could eat smoked salmonand-cucumber sandwiches with orange fennel butter and daughters could eat grape jelly flag sandwiches, and dolls got "treat seats" of their own. In 1998, Rowland sold the brand that was essentially the anti-Barbie to Mattel, the Barbie maker, for $700 million. And since then, American Girl has done the amazing: it has nearly displaced the venerable, vacant Barbie as the best-selling doll in America.

Ours, it's clear, is a moment in consumer history when middle-class American parents will spend, pretty much happily, a great deal of money on what they perceive as quality goods for their children, particularly if those goods can be seen as in any way educational. A Samantha starter kit, which includes the doll, a slim paperback book, and a few teensy accessories, sells for $98. Samantha's cunning little wooden school desk, with its historically accurate wrought-iron legs, costs $68. Her trunk, with its oval mirror and three wee hangers, costs $175. Josefina's carved wooden chest, in tasteful Santa Fe style, goes for $155. And so on. For many American girls, these are, of course, unimaginable luxuries. At an economically and racially diverse private school where a friend's daughter goes, American Girl dolls are a dividing line -- and an early introduction to class in America -- for a group of third-graders. Two of the girls are from families who cannot afford the dolls, let alone the fripperies that go with them. And, lately, these two girls have been getting left out of play dates and playground games, which often center on American Girl fantasies. Ironic, in a way, since these particular girls are from newly arrived immigrant families of modest means, whose life stories are, therefore, classic American Girl. The "Barbie as Halle Berry in Catwoman" doll may come swathed in stereotypes, but at least it has the virtue of being available at your local Target for $14.99.

For middle-class and upper-class families, however, the American Girl brand seems to work in part because it is so expensive. "Few goods are purchased as flat-out status symbols; each one carries a subtle message about its owner and user," writes Michael Silverstein, the co-author of Trading Up: The New American Luxury, and a great fan of Pleasant Rowland's vision. "When a mother gives her child an American Girl doll, she is telling the child, 'I love you and care about your emotional and intellectual development.'" There are easier and less expensive ways, perhaps, to convey such things, but maybe we don't consider them as surefire, or as likely to please our little girls. Or maybe they require more time and resourcefulness than harried mothers feel they have to give.

But the other reason the American Girl brand succeeds is that it aims to please both mothers and daughters in equal measure. For years, moms with feminist leanings had been complaining about Barbie and her ilk. But previous attempts to sell edutaining alternatives to Barbie -- dolls in lab coats, dolls with briefcases -- had failed. Sometimes they failed because they were too transparent, too earnest -- kids could see that adults were aiming straight for their self-esteem, as zealously as Mormon missionaries. Sometimes they failed because their trappings of empowerment seemed faintly absurd -- okay, it's Barbie, and she still has those torpedo boobs and those pointy little feet that fit only into stilettos, but now she's a dentist! And the doll Emme, the plus-size model, which came out a few years ago -- how literal-minded could you get? Since dolls are role models, the thinking went, a size-twelve doll will help big little girls accept themselves -- as though any doll, let alone a doll of a model, could be entrusted with such a task. Even the GetRealGirl dolls, the well-meaning attempt to introduce more "athletic figures," fell short. "They're active girls," crowed a toy website, "who have all kinds of toys and they can kick Barbie's butt like you wouldn't believe." Well, all right! I guess. But the GetRealGirls were still babes -- it's just that they were in the babe mode of today (tanned and toned surfers, snowboarders, and soccer players), not of the 1950s. And, anyway, wouldn't a girl who loved action sports prefer to be out doing them to playing with dolls?

American Girl dolls set out in a different direction, going backward in time and in age: the American Girls were nine-year-old girls, not happenin' teenagers or blowzy adults. Parents liked the idea that their girls might be learning history from them. (The company has a new line of contemporary dolls, American Girl Today, but the historical dolls are still the brand's most distinctive franchise.) And Rowland understood that, for kids, history is in part a fantasy realm, a distant land of eternal dress-up and inscrutable, vigorous chores, such as churning butter and pounding flax seed, a place sufficiently different that it might as well be Oz or Hogwarts. American Girl offered a festive view of history, one that was full of character-building hardship but also of really neat stuff -- little lockets and fringed shawls, sun bonnets and bee veils, washstands and split-log school benches, jelly biscuits and rock candy.

Of course, there are sober-minded critics -- mostly of the ideological left or right -- who fault the dolls and their books for offering too anodyne a view of history. Peter Wood, writing in the conservative National Review a few years ago, chided American Girl for creating "cloying p.c. play worlds." He particularly loathed Kaya because, he contended, she is shown at "the apex of the Nez Perce culture" to which she belonged, while the other American Girls are shown living through periods of "ethnic oppression and social crisis." But then, American history pretty much consists of "periods of ethnic oppression and social crisis." And, besides, the American Revolution and World War II (the backgrounds for Felicity and Molly) are generally considered heroic moments in our history, social crises though they may also be. What did Wood expect -- a Kaya doll who works the night shift in a reservation casino?

From the other end of the spectrum, Cynthia Peters, writing in the left-wing Z Magazine, complained that the Pleasant Company's multiculturalism didn't go nearly far enough. The Kirsten books ignored the "fact that the pioneer presence in the area, made possible by fraudulent U.S. treaties with the various Ojibwe bands, leads to the displacement of most of the Native people." Peters is disappointed that Kirsten's cousin Lisbeth says, the Indians might get angry, but "we need the land, too." Yet that seems more or less what a pioneer girl in 1854 might say -- at least a pioneer girl willing to acknowledge the feelings of native Americans at all, which would already make her slightly ahead of her time. What did Peters expect? That little Lisbeth would run off and join a nineteenth-century version of AIM, shaking her blonde pigtails and denouncing fraudulent treaties all the way? The truth is there is history that evokes, that summons up a brightly colored though flickering and incomplete picture of the past, like a home movie or a dream. And there is history that analyzes and criticizes. History written for eight-year-old girls about their dolls is probably going to do the former. Eventually eight-year-old girls grow up and some of them, with appetites for history piqued by the kind of sunny, commercial culture that some purists disdain, go on to read the critical and analytical kind. When I was a kid in L.A. in the sixties, my family used to go to a restaurant called the Old North Woods. It was meant to be a log cabin, though it was surely made of fiber glass and Sheetrock, and I was utterly taken in by it. I still remember the hurricane lamps on the tables, the waitresses in calico, the peanut shells you were encouraged to throw on the floor -- in keeping with some agreeably old-timey, and probably made-up, custom. It was my first intimation that the past could be simultaneously cozy and alien, recondite and inviting -- and I loved it.

What the American Girls phenomenon best represents, though, is the fact that fathers and mothers, even if they do not consider themselves social conservatives, want help in keeping at bay certain aspects of the pop culture. And they want help they can buy. "Mothers are tired of the sexualization of little girls," Pleasant Rowland said in an interview with Fortune magazine. Dolls based on girls of the past are appealing because girls of the past presumably weren't being pressured to give blow jobs or sending sexually explicit videos of themselves to the guys they liked. Girls of the past weren't hip-hop like the Flava dolls or diva-esque like the Bratz dolls. They were, or so we are content to imagine, "good girls." This was a supreme irony: that in an era when feminism had given American girls so many more opportunities to exercise ambition of all kinds, there was still a way in which a girl who was growing in the 1940s or the 1930s or even the 1700s and 1800s could seem less encumbered -- freer, if that is the word -- to work on the content of her character rather than on the condition of her skin.

In part, of course, this was a simplification, if not a whitewash. The notion that kids, and girls especially, "just grow up too fast today" is a clichi now, and it was probably a clichi in our parents' time, and in their parent'. It's too easy to embrace; it dovetails too neatly with the common feeling that each of us has about our own children -- that childhood really is a fleeting thing, which is both just as it should be and deeply sad. And it is also a convenient shorthand for expressing a generalized nostalgia, a sense that the world is no longer as we knew it, to its great misfortune and ours. Moreover, to answer the question "Are children growing up faster today?" you first have to ask which children you're talking about. For child laborers in nineteenth-century mills and factories and, of course, for children born into plantation slavery, childish innocence could scarcely have been supplanted any more swiftly and cruelly.

And yet there is some truth tangled in the proverbial longing for a "simpler" time, when a girl, or at least a white, middle-class girl could be a girl, in the bosom of her family, as they say, for just a little longer. For all our precious gains, for all the opening-up of the wider world, for all the possibilities that I would never, ever want to foreclose for my daughter, there is a way in which girls enjoyed a sense of themselves as vitally needed and yet protected by their families that they do not quite have today. In a book called The Essential Daughter: Changing Expectations for Girls at Home, 1797 to the Present, historian Mary Collins argues that although the kind of work that daughters did to help their mothers throughout much of our history -- sewing, canning, taking care of brothers and sisters -- narrowed their horizons in ways we would never accept today, it also accomplished something good: it imparted competence. And there might be "something in that culture of usefulness," Collins argues, that is "worth salvaging." The hale, resourceful, family-minded American Girls are always pitching in -- Kit sells eggs door-to-door to help her family make ends meet during the Depression; Kirsten milks cows and catches fish enough to feed "nine hungry people" -- and though the emphasis on their can-do helpfulness might seem treacly at times, it's also a big part of what makes their characters appealing.

Life for American girls of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not characterized by unrelenting oppression, as we used to think, in the early, sometimes smug, days of feminist history. In that sense, the high-spirited American Girls are not necessarily anachronistic. "Little girls lived as unfettered and vigorous an outdoor life as their brothers," writes Anne Scott McLeod in her essay "The Caddie Woodlawn Syndrome: American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century." Indeed, mothers were advised to encourage open-air exercise for their daughters to counteract "artificial habits" and maladies that afflicted genteel girls. "Millions of us lived in small towns where we ... had complete freedom of movement on foot, roller skates, and bicycles," recalled one woman about her early-twentieth-century girlhood. In surveys about toy use taken in the late nineteenth century -- yes, apparently there were such things, even then -- girls preferred jumping rope, playing tag or hide-and-seek, and bicycling to more sedate pastimes such as playing with dolls or doing embroidery, according to Miriam Formanek-Brunell, the author of Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 18301930. Girls "walked fences, flew kites, belly-bumpered down hills on [their] own sleds." And, though the American Girl characters aren't usually intellectual types, the truth is that in the late nineteenth century, middle-class urban girls, at least, did have opportunities to exercise their minds. Many of them attended intellectually rigorous boarding schools, wrote and read constantly, challenged themselves to improve their minds and characters, and led rich interior lives, illuminated by the poetry and novels they cherished. It isn't really such a stretch, in other words, to make role models out of Victorian girls.

For all that, though, the curatorial meticulousness of the American Girl world can seem a bit oppressive. Silverstein argues that the dolls appeal to middle-class buyers who want something with a pedigree -- in this case, the elaborate back story that comes with each of them. But in a way, that's what is disappointing about this doll world. An American Girl doll comes with so much story, so much baggage, it's hard to know whether a girl could approach play with an untrammeled imagination -- making of the doll whatever she wants. The catalog copy for Kaya's pretend food is a typical study in detail-oriented pedantry: "Help Kaya gather huckleberries and camas roots in her woven basket -- cover it with huckleberry branches to keep all her food safe inside. Later, she can lay everything on a tule mat to dry: her berries, some salmon, and a bowl of mashed cama to make into finger cakes." (Or maybe you could just put some mud in a cup and call it soup.)

And it might be harder still when a girl's parents are deeply invested -- both emotionally and financially -- in a particular kind of child's play. "When you own dolls and accessories that cost thousands of dollars, you really like to keep it going," as one mother told a Massachusetts paper, explaining why she had enrolled her daughter in an American Girl doll club whose meetings they attended together. Sometimes, evidently, kids begin to feel a bit encumbered by the particular intensity of adult interest in their hobby. Ten-year-old Talia, writing in for advice from a teenage counselor on a PBS website, described this scenario: "A few years ago, I begged my mom to get me a doll that everyone had," writes Talia. "Now I never touch it, even though it was very expensive. My mom wants to take me to a place in New York that's all about the doll: American Girl Place. Since I never play with my doll, I don't want to waste $500 on a trip there. My mom is all excited about it. Should I go or not?" I don't blame Talia's mother -- it's an entrancing world she wants to linger in with her daughter, an elegant and a safe one. And besides, the moment when a daughter relinquishes those dolls is poignant. A few years ago, when I was writing a magazine article about "mean girls," I sat in on several classes in which twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls were meant to apologize to one another. One girl said she was sorry for having spread it around that her friend still had an American Girl doll. It was apparent that this was somehow worse than saying you still had a Barbie. It was more like saying you cried for your mother every night at sleep-away camp. It was something that could make you hot-faced with embarrassment. It was saying that this was a girl in conspiracy with her mother -- or at least her elders -- to remain, for a little while longer, a little girl.

Sometimes at night I lie awake and think about how fast time goes with children. For years adults said this to you and you never knew what it meant. And then you had children and the baby time was molasses slow and then it seemed to go faster and faster, and you could imagine far too clearly all the things your children, who are so sweet and full of blooming affection now, wouldn't want to do in just a few years time -- like hug you in public. I see the ridiculousness of brooding about the inevitable and desirable -- we want our children to grow up, which means, in part, away from us -- not to mention the not-even-here-quite-yet. But there it is. Talia's mother probably feels something like the same sentiment, and Talia probably senses it.

It's odd what will draw a child into history, and into history's particular way of vouchsafing a sense that our world is not the only world. And it's odd how we can't know or always plan for the edifying moments. Not long ago, on a trip to Boston, my husband and I and our two children wandered into a very old graveyard. It was a place I'd always liked when I'd lived near it in my early twenties -- a quiet place on a hill, with a view of the Boston Harbor, gleaming like a nickel in the sun. We had planned to stop there for a few minutes on our way to get pizza. But our children loved it and wanted to linger. The seven-year-old lay on his stomach in front of a stone and read the inscriptions as though he were cracking a code, which in a way he was. His younger sister traced the words with a long stalk of grass and rubbed her fingers over the little death's heads with wings that you see in old New England graveyards -- not quite angels, something harsher. They asked a lot of questions. What did the skeletons look like? Where were their souls? Where was their skin? Why were African Americans buried in a separate part of the cemetery? Why did people die so young then? What sort of a name was Hephzibah?

Children are like us, but they are not us. That's the thing we forget sometimes: that their world is in some sense ineffable for us, as passionately as we love them. And in that sense, imagining their inner lives -- as immediate as a horse's in some ways and yet much more mystical than mine -- is like imagining history. I can no more remember what it felt like to be four years old or seven, not really, than I can know what it felt like to be a person of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. I have little pictures, just as I do of history -- magic lantern slides, backlit, endlessly fascinating, and somehow just beyond my grasp. We've all heard that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Well, childhood is too. American Girl dolls are one way to visit both those foreign countries, I suppose. But every day my children surprise me with where they want to go, and how they want to get there.

Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, former editors of Salon's Mothers Who Think. Copyright (c) 2005 by HarperCollins. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Margaret Talbot

Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

MORE FROM Margaret Talbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------