American Girl power

Does the specialty doll nurture girls' adventurousness or simply encourage them to be good little consumers?


Sarah Hepola
June 30, 2008 6:25PM (UTC)

I am at that age and place in life -- 33, single, without children -- when the American Girl phenomenon is utterly baffling. Why would little girls want those glassy-eyes zombies? They look so boring. Shouldn't they at least dance or sing or something? The idea of a parent's paying $100 for a specialty doll is nearly as foreign to me as a lonely man forking over hundreds for that other kind of real doll, the one we've written about pleeeenty of times before. Indeed, Broadsheet contributor Carol Lloyd once wrote a fascinating item comparing the two: "Like the sex dolls, American Girl dolls attempt to sell a simulacrum of a kind of perfection. In the case of grown men who can relate only to women who don't talk, move or breathe, it's pathological. In the case of a bunch of 7-year-olds, it's wholesome, age-appropriate play. But for some reasons I can't quite articulate, that still gives me the creeps." Yeah, me too, but I don't have a 7-year-old crying in her chicken soup about how desperately she loves Felicity -- and if I did, this would be the season I'd probably have to break down, and cough up a hundred clams.

"Kit Kittredge," the American Girl movie starring that plucky Abigail Breslin, opens Friday across the country, and Times movie critic (and father) A.O. Scott wrestles with the mixed messages of a giant industry that encourages girls' adventurousness while it stokes their consumerism. To be sure, the American dolls are the anti-Bratz, the anti-Barbies; in their proportions (if not in their slick, glossy hair and vacant eyes) they look like little girls. But isn't all this stuff about specialty stores -- where you sit down and have tea and finger sandwiches with your American girl -- kind of weird? Scott writes:

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"The American Girl cosmos can be, to an outsider, a fascinatingly contradictory place. Its starchy traditionalism is balanced by a savvy, up-to-the-minute multiculturalism. The commodity fetishism on display in the stores coexists with a fastidious concern for historical accuracy and, in the books, a clear educational intention."

Scott can never fully swallow his ambivalence about the dolls, but he acknowledges that Kit Kittredge "celebrates, in the midst of hard times, an appealingly ordinary brand of heroism." Hey, the Cabbage Patch dolls of my youth never came with historical back stories. They didn't survive economic hardship and they were blasted ugly. For me, the best argument for the American Girl came when I watched this video of Dinah Schone, daughter of Salon news editor Mark Schone, talking about her American doll after the "Kit Kittredge" premiere. It's gotta be hard to say no to a kid when something so small makes her so damn happy.


Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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