In order to expand and reach more readers, I have moved Adventures of a Young Feminist to a new, self-hosted site! Please update your subscriptions, links, blogrolls, etc. The new site can be found at

Friday, August 28, 2009

American Girl Dolls [Feminist Flashback Friday]

Yes, American Girl dolls are still around. But they've changed. Here I am talking about the original American Girl dolls, the one that promoted women's history. A post at Small Strokes reminded me of how much I loved the American Girl dolls growing up:

Remember when there were only a few of them before they were a multi-million dollar national company? Those dolls were so popular among girls because they had their own historical timeline, and the timeline that was taught in schools was just a backdrop to each doll’s stories.
For me, part of feminism is promoting the history of people who are not normally seen in the history books, especially the history of women. I definitely see the American Girl dolls as a part of feminist history, because they had sadly moved away from promoting women's history to profiting off "modern" dolls (For the purposes of this post, I will be discussing American Girl dolls before the introduction American Girl Today).

When I was growing up, I had the American Girl Samantha (and I was shocked to discover that Samantha is no longer made!). Samantha was an orphan girl growing up in 1904 (she was the Victorian era doll) by her wealthy grandmother in New York. She befriends the "poor servant girl," Nellie and is eventually adopted, along with Nellie and Nellie's sisters, by her aunt and uncle. Samantha's books included themes of women's suffrage, child labor, and classism.

Back when I was playing with American Girl dolls (in the early - mid 90s), the dolls that were made were Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly; Addy was just being introduced; and towards the end of my time playing with them, the American Girl Today line was starting (I remember getting one from this line that looked like me). American Girl was focused on bringing the history of these girls to "life," so to speak.

As Ashley from Small Strokes said in the quote above, the American Girl dolls because the highlighted a feminist timeline for girls that only had the mainstream historical timeline as a backdrop. Incorporating women's history into the mainstream historical timeline (as the American Girl dolls tried to do) is important in fighting the erasure of women. If young girls can't look back in history and see someone that resembled themselves, they might not feel as if they have a place in society or that society does not value them as much. For dolls and books that were targeted towards young girls, American Girl took on some very important issues, such as classism, women's suffrage (both in the case of Samantha) as well as slavery, racism, and war.

The American Girls dolls were an important part of my childhood. But they were definitely not perfect. For one thing, the American Girls dolls were definitely a sign of status. As the American Girl dolls have grown, there has been an increase in diversity. I'm not familiar with the newer dolls, so I'm not sure how issues of racism, classism, etc. are handle in these doll's stories. I do like that they are trying to provide a role model for girls of diverse backgrounds. But the dolls are not readily available to young girls of all backgrounds because of various constraints, including price. The American Girl dolls are expensive, especially once you get all the clothes, accessories, and books that go with your American Girl. I loved Samantha and I wouldn't have given her up. But I think that it is also important to integrate non-mainstream historical timelines into children's lives. While dolls were a great way to do this for me and many other children, it wasn't for others.

Incorporating women's history into childhood development is very important to raising awareness about the erasure and oppression of women. I think that the American Girl dolls do a good job at this for the age range that they are marketed towards. The books tackle issues that children's books do not always handle because of the seriousness of the issues, which I think is great. Exposing children to these issues at a young age encourages the fighting of oppression at later ages. The American Girl dolls of my childhood (pre-American Girl Today) brought women's history to the forefront for children and encouraged children to think about important issues.


Ameya said...

I too was a total American Girl girl. I had Felicity & Kirsten (<33), though I wasn't able to gather much of their stuff, but I definitely read all the books of Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha & Molly. I read one or two of Kaya when she came out too but I was pretty old at that time.

I can't believe they don't make Samantha anymore! All my life i've been a history buff so these books meant a lot to me- it was the one place where I could relate to the history i was studying. I know my Felicity & Kirsten are hiding away in a closet somewhere, but I hope i can still find some of the books & things by the time I have kids who are old enough to enjoy them (oh yes, my boys will read them too! )

Pop-Punk Junkie said...

They don't make Samantha anymore? How sad! She was the one I had. Regardless, it is nice to see that the dolls have become much more diverse, in time periods as well as ethnicity.

I must have read the accompanying books dozens of times, and borrowed books from friends or relatives of mine who had different dolls, etc. They were very much a part of my childhood, showing me that girls can be independent and have great adventures.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin