115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The American Girl Dolls: Consumerism, Dolls, and the Longing for a Lost American Girlhood

Gretchen Bartels, California Baptist University

The American Girls books and dolls offer models of what Michel de Certeau describes as the tactics of the consumer fighting against the strategies of dominant culture, and they offer girls the means to define their own American girlhood by modeling moments of cultural resistance.

Proposal: 

Dolls have long been an ideological space for the construction of girlhood and femininity, often in terms of consumerism and motherhood, and by the late nineteenth-century they were the centerpiece of American girls’ toy boxes. Baby dolls and fashion dolls often acculturate the player to women’s roles as mother and socialite. Following Victoria Ford Smith, I am interested in the moments in which this acculturation breaks down, the places in which the doll becomes “a site of female agency” (175). Rather than focusing on the “dolls that promote self-fulfillment for girls through superficial, sweet maternity and every earnest materialism” that Miriam Formanek-Brunell laments in her 1993 study of the history of dolls in America, my concern in this chapter is the past and present constructed by the American Girl books and dolls.

 Pleasant Rowland launched Pleasant Company's line of American Girls in 1986 with stories of girls from different periods of American history. The books with Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington, and Molly McIntire created nostalgic space in which the girls of America’s past shaped their communities and contributed to history, and these original American Girls were soon joined by others representing more ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, such as Addy Walker and Josephina Montoya. The advertisement in the back of the original books asserted, “the books are only part of the American Girls Collection—only the beginning. There are loveable dolls—Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly dolls—that have beautiful clothes and lots of wonderful accessories to go with them. They make these stories of the past come alive today for American girls like you.” But what type of past are these dolls and accessories bringing to life? Certainly it is a hopeful and nostalgic past in which girls were important actors in the unfolding historical events. It is a world populated with physical objects and commodities that are available to young readers in replica. To what extent do these cast girls as passive consumer versus active participant, especially after the American Girl line subsequently deemphasized the historical and developed representation of self in their “Truly Me” line of dolls?

The nostalgia for an idealized past created in the books and the miniature historical artifacts fed on the audience’s longing for the stories of strong women, particularly girls, that are so often lost in the annals of American history. Many of the books represented girls who deviate from traditional notions of traditional femininity as passive and cautious by celebrating the girls’ courage and adventurous spirits. Without the context of the books, however, the dolls and accessories emphasized more traditional gender roles. I contend that the books offer models of what Michel de Certeau describes as the tactics of the consumer fighting against the strategies of dominant culture, and that when coupled with the books, the dolls created a legacy of independent girlhood that offered girls a way to define their own American girlhood in the present through modeling moments of cultural resistance.