Adventures in Parenting

The American Doll

Fair skin, blue eyes, blonde braids

By Cynthia Peters


Zoe, my six-year-old, was practically vibrating with delight when she opened the big rectangular box and pulled out her first American Girl doll. It was her birthday. She had asked for Felicity—the "colonial era" doll, but there had been a mix-up. She got Kirsten instead. This "pioneer" girl is from Sweden. Blond hair. Blue eyes. "Oooh, she looks just like you, Zoe," people raved.

Now she was the proud owner of the much coveted American Girl doll. We had vaguely supported her strong desire to have an American Girl doll. At least we had passed her birthday wish list on to a willing grandparent. We knew that the doll would come with books that told the girl’s story, that the dolls were of a decent quality, and that, well, they weren’t Barbies.

Parents of girls are known to experience moments of elation when their daughters show interest in dolls that are not Barbie. We all know about Barbie. She’s got that impossible figure, the deformed feet (though there is the occasional flat-footed model), the big hair, the gravity-defying breasts. No matter what version you buy—and there are many—Barbie always looks the same without her clothes on. That’s why, even though the 1990s has brought us the Paleontologist Barbie, the Barbie Dentist, the Movin’ and Groovin’ Barbie, a nurturing big brother Ken who comes boxed with his little brother, an African American version of Barbie and Ken named Imani and Menelik—both dressed in African garb—and a Barbie-type doll in a wheelchair named "Share a Smile Becky," feminist parents hate Barbie.

In some homes, Barbie is banned. Parents want to protect their daughters as much as possible from damaging stereotypes. In our household, we don’t ban much, but we do try to steer clear of certain toys. Kirsten, however, was practically invited in. She doesn’t have a cinched waist, but my relief about that was short-lived. As it turns out, she is loaded with enough questionable "American" values and historical inaccuracies to make me crave Barbie with her current access to a wide range of "careers," despite (or because of) her ultra-feminine deformities. After all, it’s pretty simple to point out the silliness of those molded high-heel feet. It’s a little harder to get a grip on the racialized nationalism of the blond-haired, blue-eyed pioneer girl.

The Pleasant Company, makers of the American Girl dolls and accessories collection, thinks "being an American Girl is great—something to stand up and shout about." The home page of their web site features a fair-skinned girl, looking straight at you, hands on hips. Her T-shirt is decorated with stars and exclaims, "Proud to be an American Girl!" Pleasant Rowland, founder of the Pleasant Company, has the laudable goal of providing girls with quality books and dolls, each representing a different period of U.S. history. She wants to give girls an "understanding of America’s past and a sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday."

Grateful for stories about girls that focus on their courage and spunk and adventurous spirit, and intrigued by history lessons that come through in the "historically accurate" depictions of the girls’ lives, parents love to see their daughters’ interest in American Girl dolls.

These dolls do give our daughters positive role models. All six American Girl dolls—Felicity (1774), Josefina (1824), Kirsten (1854), Addy (1864), Samantha (1904) and Molly (1944)—are brave, thoughtful, struggling girls with real-life problems and triumphs. There is even an attempt to represent the multi-cultural nature of the United States. One of the dolls is African American and one is "Hispanic."

But taken as a whole, there is something troubling about the unbridled patriotism central to the concept of the American Girl Collection. There is no nuance or critical investigation of the traditions that we are supposed to feel so proud of. History, they say, is written by the victors. And the Pleasant Company does indeed deliver the story as told by the winners.

Even using the word "American" to describe the collection gives us pause. Since the Americas make up two full continents of which the United States is only a small part, and since millions of Native people once inhabited the Americas and might accurately be called Americans, it’s a bit of a leap to pose our pioneer girl from Sweden as the quintessential American Girl.

The Pleasant Company’s stab at multi-culturalism flattens our understanding of difference and puts us all in the same patriotic boat. "Meet Josefina," one of the books tells us, "An American Girl." Well, actually, in 1824, she was a Mexican girl—not an American girl at all in the Pleasant Company sense of the word. The United States had yet to declare war on Mexico and fight for two bloody grueling years in order to "lay claim" to the territory that now makes up the Southwestern United States. But the book lets us know that being an American Girl is her destiny. Little does Josefina know that her progeny will one day be fighting English-only initiatives in their home states.

Addy, the African American girl whose story includes the wrenching break-up of her family and her escape from slavery, acknowledges race and reveals something of the inhumanity of slavery. Yet the overwhelming message is patriotic: the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. At the end of her story, Addy is shown wearing red, white, and blue, with a picture of Lincoln pinned to her dress while she reads the Emancipation Proclamation to a hushed and appreciative church full of black folks.

But it’s too late to worry about all this now. The doll is being carried all around the house. Pleasant Company catalogs are arriving at a fast and furious pace. Each one provides Zoe with a minimum of a half-hour of thorough absorption. The full-color 85-page tome is more exciting than the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us. Zoe barely blinks as she scans the pages, admiring the high-quality, high-priced American Girl sidelines. There are more historically accurate dresses and nightgowns to purchase. Assorted socks, shoes, picnic baskets, and miniature American flags. There’s Kirsten’s own hand-painted trunk for $155 and her matching bed "with its charming design" for $55.

"Mom, I need more stuff for Kirsten so I can play with her better."

To distract her from this mail-order reverie, I suggest we read one of the Kirsten books. We end up getting a grossly misrepresented slice of American history.

Kirsten, we learn, is a pioneer girl "of strength and spirit." Her family comes from Sweden to farm in Minnesota. 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 is treated as a neutral bit of bad luck for Indians. Kirsten’s cousin Lisbeth expresses trepidation that the "Indians" might get angry with the pioneers because their farmland is encroaching on the Native hunting grounds. But, she says to Kirsten, "We need the land too."

According to the Pleasant Company, the European immigrants’ conflict with the Indians does not result in bloody battles, disease, economic warfare, and the near decimation of the Native population. Seen through the eyes of the innocent Kirsten, who, in one book, Kirsten Learns a Lesson, actually befriends a Native girl her age, it’s simply a sad twist of fate that Singing Bird is hungry and must go West with her tribe in search of food.

For a brief moment, Kirsten entertains the idea of joining her. "Come, sister," Singing Bird says.

"Kirsten remembered the warm tepee where Singing Bird lived. She imagined herself sleeping by Singing Bird’s side under the buffalo hides. If she lived with Singing Bird she would be free to roam the woods all day. Brave Elk would be good to her. He was the chief, and Kirsten would be his yellow-haired daughter. She and Singing Bird would always be together."

Kirsten’s flight of fancy about running away with Singing Bird does not stray much from the standard Eurocentric romanticizing of Native life. Contrasted as it is in Kirsten Learns a Lesson with Kirsten’s tortuous hours in the school house with her severe teacher who commands her students not to act like savages, the dream of running away with the "Indians" symbolizes a break from civilization. Of course, Kirsten chooses not to follow Singing Bird. A wise choice, as history shows. Had she joined the Indians, Kirsten would not have spent a lot of time roaming the woods and sleeping on buffalo hides. She would have surely gone to her death with a doomed people and a way of life that would be extinct in the next few decades. Kirsten bids a sad farewell to her Indian friend and returns home to find she has won a "Reward of Merit" for properly reciting an English-language verse.

But in the process she has learned another important lesson as well: that Minnesota is her home. "She wasn’t sure when this place had become her own, but she belonged here now," the book tells us. The illustration shows the backs of the Native people as they leave their homeland. They have been neatly displaced. Kirsten, though she has lived in Minnesota only a few months and has not yet learned English, has a clear sense of entitlement to the land.

Call me a strident politically correct Mom if you must, but all I could think about after I read this story to Zoe was what the German equivalent would be. Imagine the "German Girl Collection" featuring Hilda, a nine-year-old German girl in 1939. Her little Jewish friend is being taken away on a train. She’s sad at first, but her departure, which is portrayed as glamorous and mysterious, seems to be inevitable. Oh, well. Hilda accepts the loss of her friend and is determined to enjoy her status and sense of belonging so obviously denied the disappeared one. While all the area Jews are being loaded onto trains, Hilda skips home and is rewarded for some quality that enhances her essential Germanness.

Hilda’s and Kirsten’s stories are analogous, but Hilda’s would be considered outrageous: a nationalistic, racist bit of historical revisionism. Rightly so. But here in "America," such revisionism is so familiar as to be banal.

As is the misty-eyed preoccupation with home and hearth. The Pleasant Company’s take on the family is equal parts Norman Rockwell and Newt Gingrich, with a sprinkling of Anita Bryant. Dad presides over the well-behaved clan. Mother has babies, does enormous amounts of housework, and is frequently congratulated by Dad for "having heart," while they suffer so much hardship. Anchored to a strong family with clear role models, Kirsten is allowed to be adventurous. In one story, Kirsten goes trapping with her brother and an old hermit who lives in the woods. She discovers an injured raccoon that she brings home to nurse. Though instructed not to let him into the house, she does anyway because it’s so cold in the barn. Sure enough disaster ensues. The raccoon gets loose and tips over an oil lamp, setting the whole place on fire. Everything is lost except the trunk they brought from Sweden, which is rescued by Kirsten in a heroic effort. The family has no home and no furniture, but never fear. Kirsten proceeds to get lost in the woods. She finds the old hermit’s shelter and discovers that he has collected a huge stack of furs. For what purpose, no one knows. He has no family and not many needs. But plundering nature and hoarding wealth are important American values so it does not have to be explained why an elderly hermit would be going out and methodically trapping every furry animal in the vicinity, skinning it, and keeping a nice pile of his work. That’s just what people do. Furthermore, he is dead—from old age, it appears. It’s Kirsten’s lucky day. She takes the furs and gives them to her parents so they can get the money to purchase a real home. All’s well that ends well. Spunky daughters are no problem as long as their energies result in home improvement.

As it turns out there is a Barbie Pioneer Girl as well. Clearly modeled on the successful Pleasant Company collection, the Barbie Pioneer Girl comes with a little book that tells the story of Barbie’s foray into the frontier (in high heels no doubt). The book is about three square inches, and poorly bound with glue. The type is crooked on the page, and the story is thin. It, like the doll, is not meant to be a keepsake. It’s barely meant to be read. The pictures are comical—showing the familiar Barbie in a covered wagon. The whole boxed set is a throwaway toy that costs $9.99. Unlike the American Girl Collection, which is full of realistic details, "heirloom quality" accessories, and endless moral justifications and rationalizations for the twists and turns of U.S. history, Barbie has less to say. Presumably the people of lesser means who can’t pay for "heirloom quality" don’t have to be quite as well schooled in the excuses and justifications for capital’s dominance and the glorification of family values. Girls of means, however, are destined to reproduce and carry on ruling class values, which are enshrined and made palatable in elaborate playthings as well as Ivy League schools.

Moms and Dads: we have our work cut out for us. The doll options for our children run the gamut between pointy-breasted paleontologists and patriotic blond-haired pioneers. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least the two dolls mentioned are not engineered to spew body fluids, thus giving our daughters early lessons in the joy of mopping up assorted excretions. Perhaps we should be grateful that spunk and courage are attributes ascribed to girls, and that the occasional career girl makes her way into the line-up. Perhaps we should be appreciative of the ubiquitous blond giving way to the occasional brunette, and even brown-skinned doll. Perhaps we should feel hopeful that in addition to having happy-sex-object-homemaker role models for dolls, our daughters also have feisty-patriot role models who sometimes get into trouble but who always emerge victorious, thus easing our children’s acceptance of the great and inevitable American way of life. I am not comforted.

I can’t be a gatekeeper, regulating the flow of influences allowed to reach my daughter. Not only would it be a huge task, I would be limiting my attention to my own private and precious offspring. Sort of like buying an air purification system—physician recommended—for the six square feet around my kid’s bed. Meanwhile the outside world harbors vast platoons of unfiltered air molecules just waiting to invade her lungs.

It’s hopeless anyway. Every time I interrupt the story with my own reflections—okay, diatribes—she says, "Mom, could you just read the book?"

The experts say to buy toys that emphasize creative play and to avoid the toys that only do one thing. Thus, you save money by not having to buy one Barbie who fills cavities (while standing on tip-toes), another Barbie who goes to step aerobics (also on tip-toes), and yet another Barbie decked out in evening wear (how else but on tip-toes?). Furthermore, your child will benefit from freer play that is less scripted and directed by exacting toys and their attachments. I would add that we should also beware of the "educational" books that offer fine-tuned justifications for dominant institutions past and present. These books may appeal to our children’s intellect, but they represent an early start to the process of inculcating kids with the values and norms that they’ll need to rationalize an unjust world.

Consider also, in the world beyond your child’s playroom, how you can help build and support the institutions and communities that offer alternatives. Creating spaces that emphasize care over consumption, continuity over disposability, and diversity over universality will expose all children to values they won’t find in the mainstream.