On the histories, stories, and effects of the American Girl dolls.
There are lots of reasons why it’s crucial to include the study and analysis of material culture as a part of any American Studies approach, but perhaps the most obvious is this: nothing impacts our lives and identities more consistently and fully than the stuff with which we interact. That’s certainly true for adults—he typed on his laptop, just after checking the time on his cell phone and just before getting in his car to go buy lunch—but it’s perhaps even more true for kids; after all, while kids learn about the world and about their specific society through a variety of means, nothing is more central to their day to day life than their playthings, the toys and games with which they occupy so much time. And while there would be many different ways to analyze those childhood material culture artifacts—how and where they’re made, for example, and what those details can reveal about world economies—this week my interest is in what kids, and all of us, might learn about American culture from its toys and games.
In most cases, that learning is implicit, requires us to analyze what meanings kids and all of us can find in those playthings; but in the case of today’s subject, the American Girl line of dolls, learning about American history and society has been an explicit and core purpose since the product was first created (in 1986). Pleasant Company’s first three dolls, Samantha, Kirsten, and Molly, were each designed—in their appearance, their clothes and accessories, the back stories and books that came with them, and more—to capture aspects of a particular historical moment (1904, 1854, and 1944, respectively). In the decades since, while the line has branched out to include many contemporary dolls as well, it has likewise added in multiple other periods, as well as different ethnicities and communities: Marie-Grace and Cécile, an interracial pair of friends in antebellum New Orleans; Josefina Montoya, a Mexican American from the 1820s; Kaya, a Nez Perce Native American from the 18th century; and many others. Over these same decades, the small independent company has been purchased by Mattel, and I’m sure there are a whole range of other American Studies narratives to be found in the many changes that expansion have entailed (such as the creation of mega-stores, movies and TV shows, and other products) as well as in the complex relationship between these American Girls and Barbie, that parent company’s most famous (and also still evolving) line of dolls.
Yet I think the most interesting and significant material culture analyses don’t focus, at least not solely, on those broader questions and narratives. After all, every individual American Girl doll might be created within those material, economic, social, and ideological worlds, but her destination is a good deal more specific and intimate: the hands of (most likely) another American girl, a young person who is of course influenced by those broader narratives (and many others) but who likewise brings her own evolving identity and perspective to the equation. And if we focus on that more intimate level of experience, a range of new analytical questions open up for us: in what ways does each girl find herself in an American Girl doll, and in what ways does she find something unfamiliar or different? Do the historical and cultural contexts matter to her play, or is the experience more about relatively timeless or universal themes (childhood, gender, family, and so on)? For girls who have more than one doll (or who play with friends who have their own dolls), does it change things to put the different identities and characters in conversation with each other, or is play in one 21st century moment defined more by its own period and contexts than by the dolls’?
Needless to say, I don’t have all the answers! I’d love to hear yours, though. More tomorrow,
PS. So, what do you think? And any other toys or playthings you’d want to analyze?6/11 Memory Day nominee: Jeannette Rankin, whose historic status as the first woman elected to Congress only scratches the surface of her impressive and inspiring life, activism, and legacies.
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