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
"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."
"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."
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."
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.
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.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.
The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.
Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.
If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.
There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.
My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.
My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.
What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.
I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.
This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.