When I was a child, I was an ugly duckling. I was terribly thin; I had big glasses, and my mom just didn’t know what to do with my uber-curly hair, so she always tried to just blow dry it straight, and I ended up with a fuzzy hairdo. I loved to read, Coke-bottle glasses sliding down my nose as I buried it in a book. I liked to play with my dolls, making up stories None of my dolls looked like me–until I got American Girl doll Molly.
Molly had glasses. Her mousy brown hair was always braided to keep it out of her face. And she had stories. Those stories were historical, yes. I got to learn about WW II in an immersive way. But I felt a connection to this doll after reading how badly she wanted a dog (then, as now, I loved dogs), how fiercely she could love a friend and still be angry with her (I had a friend who stayed with us often because her mother was very ill, and we loved one another but fought when we’d been around one another too much–like Molly and her English friend Emily when Emily is staying to be out of danger), how Molly went to camp and had such fun despite hating bugs and getting poison ivy (I loved camp and the outdoors but hated bugs), and how badly Molly wanted to be the beautiful star of the show (wearing pin curls and removing glasses for the recital bore much resemblance to how badly I wanted to look like the other girls).
I don’t remember which of the dolls I got next, but over the years, my parents bought Kirsten, Felicity, and Samantha for me. They always bought the doll and the books; I rarely got any of the additional things that the company sold for the dolls. And honestly, that was fine with me. What I wanted was to play with the dolls and tell their stories. I didn’t need a lot of accouterments for that. I read, and I fixed their hair, and I pretended conversations between them should they ever meet one another. I admired Felicity’s red hair, which I wished I had, and I rejoiced when she got her horse, Penny (much like with dogs, I have always had a soft spot for horses). I was entranced with the way Samantha stood with her friend, Nellie, as she was orphaned and sent to work in a factory. I wept with Kirsten when her friend died on the way to America.
Later, I would question some of these narratives. I would recognize the privilege that is hidden in the packaging. Sure, it looks great to have dolls that are historically placed, who come into contact with the issues of the day and are active rather than passive. And they do some amazing things. My dolls were all white, though. It wasn’t until 1993, seven years and several dolls after the company began (and a little past my collecting days), that Addy, a black girl living during the Civil War, introduced any sense of diversity into the line. And the historical “Looking Back” pieces at the end of the books rarely concentrated on women’s and girls’ history, instead giving a broad-brush approach to the time period. That would’ve worked for an introduction; but for a conclusion to books that had focused so much on the girl, it left her out of history once again. It was disheartening.
And those dolls were—-are—-expensive. They can cost hundreds of dollars with accessories, and even without accessories, just doll and books, they’re generally $100 or so. The company has been purchased by Mattel, and the original dolls have been mostly archived in a “Historical Line” in favor of promoting dolls that are more contemporary. Unsurprisingly, these dolls are mostly white, privileged, and don’t do too much boat-rocking. They’re not tomboys like Felicity, child labor activists like Samantha (or suffragettes like her aunt Cordelia), or escaping, like Addy, from an oppressive system (slavery, just in case that wasn’t clear) to find their family.
I wouldn’t have found anything to identify with in most of the new dolls. I wasn’t blonde, artsy, or all that worried about keeping up with my classmates. I went to a large school in a small town–if you didn’t go to the local private school, you went to the public school, and that was that. I was awkward. I got picked on for my weird hair and big glasses and for being ok with touching mice and hamsters and earthworms and all those things I wasn’t supposed to want to touch. Now there’s nothing wrong with being an Isabelle–with being a blonde at an art school worried about keeping up with your classmates. That just wasn’t me, and it isn’t many other girls. I was a Molly, though I wanted desperately to be a Samantha. I’m still a Molly.
And I can’t help but think of how many American Girls are not represented in that collection–even fewer now than previously, even less emphasis on empowering them, encouraging them to part of large social movements. Where’s our Civil Rights Era doll, or a gay rights advocate? Where are our Native American girls after extended European contact (the one Native American doll, Kaya, has a story that takes in 1764)? It’s time we see those American girls.