I'm at that special age now where a good number of my friends are getting engaged and/or having babies (and not always in that order), and when one particular friend recently told me she was having a girl, my immediate response was excitement that I would finally have a valid reason to stroll the aisles at the American Girl store. When I was a kid, those dolls were special, and not just because they were so pricy your parents really had to want to buy your love to get you one, let alone more than one so they would have each other. Hey, Barbie has friends, so should American Girl! Those dolls were special because of the meticulous crafting they came with-- from clothing to accessories to stories. Unlike Barbie, who was a smaller, thinner, more mature (in look) doll, American Girl reflected the youth of yesteryear and came with books about each one's life and personality. I think the idea was to match your own personality and interests to one of the girls' and then ask your parents for that particular doll, but this was before the internet was in every home, so I'm not quite sure how that would work. I went about my selection by flipping through the catalog until I found the one that most looked like me, pointed, and then proceeded to collect every "thing" that doll was supposed to come with. Was I doing dolls wrong? The manufacturers behind American Girl would say no because despite their intentions, their real goal is to sell, sell, sell, and I was falling right into their capitalistic trap. But Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post would probably tell me I was missing the point entirely.
A few months ago (what can I say? Sometimes I stumble onto things late in life), Petri published a piece on how American Girl has changed in recent years to remove history from its brand and instead focus on a more modern approach so that little girls could actually create a version that reflects them. Gone are some of the older fashioned clothes and accessories, and the books are in a separate section of the stores so some consumers won't even read them at all. She called this "terrible" and said these are the dolls kids today "deserve" as if it's a punishment, but I personally think it just marks the demand of the industry and actually quite a progressive one. These are the dolls kids today want, but I also think they're the dolls kids today deserve-- because kids deserve to see themselves reflected everywhere and because they deserve freedom of choice.
When I was a little girl I wanted the doll that looked like me, but when I first flipped through the catalog, I only had a few options to choose from. There was Samantha, a brown hair/brown eyed/bangs girl; Molly a brown hair/brown eyed/bangs/glasses girl; and Kirsten, a blonde hair/green eyed girl. Felicity (the redhead) came a little later-- that is how old I am (if memory serves, which at my age, it may not). If I was African American or Chinese or Latina, I was shit out of luck. America is a melting pot, but from those early dolls, you'd think the KKK had gotten their way.
Thankfully over time, that adapted and expanded. Addy was introduced, as was Kaya, a Native American doll. The brand even brought in some gender neutral baby dolls with female and male clothes options, for those who wanted to be even more inclusive. It was only in recent years that the "build your own" model worked its way in, with a dozen skin, eye, and hair color combinations to really reflect the faces of little girls today. Faces are certainly an important part of the puzzle-- we talk so much about the reflections in the media, and I'd argue it starts younger, it starts with little kids walking into toy stores and searching for their faces on shelves-- but it may be the least important part of this puzzle. Because playtime is inherently about imagination, and what matters most is the stories kids create, not adhere to, while playing.
Petri took American Girl's original brand idea to heart by point out that "...the whole point was to give you an entry point to history." I'm not arguing the validity of that statement, but it really made me question just how many kids who got those dolls on their birthdays or under the Christmas tree or on the eighth night of Hanukkah actually absorbed the history. Back in the day, when you bought Samantha or Molly or Kirsten, you received a book entitled "Meet [Enter Your Doll's Name here]" so you could learn about your doll. It was the first book in a series, and if you liked what you read, you could beg for the rest as presents on the next holiday. Sure, reading those books would have you absorb the markers of those specific historical times. Looking at the clothes and accessories that didn't reflect your own might have you asking questions that only more research and reading could answer. But did you think it was real-- history-- at all? Or did you assume, like with so many other beloved childhood books it was just a work of fiction?
I know I personally didn't think too hard about the history. I was never all that interested in the subject. I'm sure for some select other girls it was different, but I was the girl who looked at the old-timey clothes and wondered why my shiny Samantha doll couldn't wear what I was wearing. I was the girl who mixed and matched outfits from the dolls-- I didn't keep Samantha in her time-period only appropriate frocks, nor did I for Kiersten or Felicity, who I also acquired. I was the girl who took scissors (but surprisingly never glue and glitter) to some of the outfits in order to make them look as modern as I could manage. Tights became leggings; a dress became a tee-shirt/skirt combo that was way too matchy-matchy to ever wear together... American Girl inspired my creativity, not my longing for the past.
In fact, I would argue that today's line of American Girl actually inspires creativity and education in greater ways than the version I grew up with ever did. Back in the day, the only thing you could learn about through the dolls were different times. There's merit there, sure, but it is limited in scope. Now, you flip through the catalog or walk the aisles and see things like camping gear, musical instruments, cooking equipment, even a reporter's set! There is room to learn about different industries and talents as well as time periods because yes, there are still historical dolls for the girls that want them, too; they haven't cut that out or turned their backs on who they were-- in fact they've added some new ones over the years. There is room to pick up a new hobby or skill based on the adorable miniature versions created for your doll just as much as there is room just to buy things that are cute or fun (like pajamas or pets or a bubble bath set); not everything has to be a teachable moment. They have opened up the doors to include so, so many options, and options are the markers of evolution.
Now here's hoping the next step is an American Boy doll.