American Girl dolls teach positive lessons in a complex world

Play nice

The first time I saw an American Girl doll, it was the "mini-Me" style, created with interactive design tools to perfectly replicate its owner. Light-skinned brunette dolls for light-skinned brunette girls. Dark-skinned dolls with glasses for dark-skinned bespectacled girls. And so on.

These replica dolls, branded My American Girl, are only one facet of a multimillion-dollar empire that includes fiction and nonfiction books, movies, a monthly magazine, and 14 "experiential retail" stores in major U.S. cities, all with the mission of "celebrating the potential of girls."

American Girl, created here in Middleton, was from the beginning aimed at a "boutique" demographic: intelligent, self-aware girls, not "teen queens" like Disney's Hannah Montana.

In 1998 American Girl was purchased by major toy manufacturer Mattel, and since then has overperformed even by corporate standards. In the third quarter of last year, AG brought the biggest gains to its parent company, dwarfing perennial Mattel favorite Barbie. Though Barbie's star may be on the wane, for American Girl things are only looking up.

But is American Girl good for girls?

American Girl is for 7- to 12-year-olds who look and act like 7- to 12-year-olds.

"There's a sweetness and wholesomeness about the dolls. They're lovely and innocent," says UW-Madison associate professor of history, and mom, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen.

This echoes the sentiments of many moms - that the dolls promote a girlhood free of messages to look and act grownup more quickly. And that's part of what they were meant to address.

"What do you think of this idea?" American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland wrote to a friend on a postcard, now preserved in the company's archives. "A series of books about nine-year-old girls growing up in different times in history, with a doll for each of the characters and historically accurate clothes and accessories with which girls could play out stories?"

The approach - a combination of learning and play that Rowland nicknamed "chocolate cake and vitamins" - originated with her visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Rowland, a former teacher and successful curriculum developer, was struck by how the town introduced children to history.

Innovation later arose from need. That Christmas, Rowland searched for presents for her young nieces. The available dolls only reinforced standard social modeling for girls. Baby dolls encouraged "mommy" play, while Barbie presented girls with sexualized views of their bodies. At that moment, inspired by her Williamsburg experience, Rowland imagined a unique doll that filled the hole in the marketplace.

When the dust settled, Rowland had pulled off a toy-maker's dream, repurposing an old toy rather than inventing a new one. The fledgling company sold $1.7 million worth of product the first season. Within the next 10 years, the return grew phenomenally to $300 million. American Girl was a home run with moms and girls.

American Girl expanded to include a line of contemporary dolls, with a new release each year. These dolls struggle with contemporary problems: bullying, obesity, divorce, even race relations, all made palatable by character-driven fiction books that girls have gobbled up to the tune of $139 million to date. Current preoccupations and trends are reflected, right down to the allergy-free lunches, available through the accessories line.

Ellen Samuels, an assistant professor in UW-Madison's department of gender and women's studies, thinks this approach is good for girls.

"I teach a class called 'Body Theory,' where the students bring in cultural artifacts and talk about how they convey ideas about body and gender. A number of students talk about American Girl dolls. The dolls offer a much more diverse and expansive idea about girlhood than a traditional doll because of the way they are set up to validate girls, their identities, their sense of self, and their cultural and racial background."

Samuels notes that American Girl offers accessories for disabled dolls, such as wheelchairs, service dogs and hearing aids. These accessories are part of the main catalog, rather than segregated into a "special needs" area. American Girl hair salons, available at the retail stores, even provide a service to remove a doll's hair to mirror a child going through chemotherapy.

The line of historical dolls takes this focus on real-world experience a step further, exploring American history through the experiences of each doll.

Take Rebecca Rubin. Rebecca is a Jewish character doll released in May 2009. She lives on the Lower East side of Manhattan at the height of the second wave of immigration, circa 1914. She struggles with assimilation, the rise of the movie industry and the labor movement. This is a lot to put on one vinyl-skinned doll, but somehow American Girl pulls it off.

"The attention to historical detail is wonderful," Ratner-Rosenhagen says. "If that's a point of entry for young girls to understand that a child's life looks different in time and place, that's great. My own daughter asked certain questions about history because of the detail she wouldn't otherwise have asked."

Madison mom and nonprofit marketing consultant Suzanne Swift likes American Girl's focus on career choice, eating well, and what it means to be a friend. "We're Jewish, and my daughter has the Hanukkah and Shabbat set," says Swift. "It's so nice for her to be able to introduce that she's Jewish to her friends in the context of a toy."

Learning is a key element of American Girl play. Want to know more about patriotism and the War of 1812? Check out Caroline. Interested in Native American life and the Nez Perce tribe? There's Kaya. Looking for an African American doll that provides a point of entry to the Civil War and life after slavery? Then Addy is the doll for you.

With so many positive qualities in the brand, what's not to love? The price, for one.

Swift worries that the dolls' expense makes them elitist. Her own daughter's dolls have come from the popular annual overstock sale to benefit the AG Fund and the Madison Children's Museum. (The benefit sale is itself so popular that tickets are sold to be able to get in on the first day.)

American Girl's store-sold doll averages about $120. Add to that the price of accessories, and for many families, the experience is prohibitive.

"It's interesting that the brand is about girl empowerment and diversity and being your best self, but only if your parents can pony up a lot of money," says Swift. "I can outfit my daughter for less money than I can her doll, and what kind of message does that ultimately send?"

UW-Madison journalism professor Katy Culver offers a counterpoint. "The consumerism is on a spectrum. Consumerism in general is foisted on children right now, and it's something parents have to watch out for. But honestly, as a mom, if I were to design a toy from scratch and have it compete in the world of Bratz and Barbies, it would look an awful lot like American Girl."

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy of Verona pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Verona resident Melissa Wardy got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.

Mama Madison: Back-to-school confidences

Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.

Mama Madison: Does back-to-school really mean a whole new wardrobe?

This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"

Mama Madison: Next generation of bloggers

Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.

Mama Madison: Returning to the workforce

This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.

Triathlons raise money to teach kids healthy habits

"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.

Mama Madison: Kids will find their own passions in their own ways

"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."

Vital work is being done at the Lussier Community Education Center, from community-building to STEM skills

"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.