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."

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