Slate women discuss the American Girl dolls, books, movie, and message.

Slate women discuss the American Girl dolls, books, movie, and message.

Slate women discuss the American Girl dolls, books, movie, and message.

Conversations in real time.
July 3 2008 3:52 PM

The Thinking Girl's Barbie?

Slate women discuss the American Girl dolls, books, movie, and message.

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Torie: The repetition of foreclosure, struggling to make the mortgage payment, layoffs, might hit home for a little girl today whose parents are going through difficult times. Hell, there are even absent parents!

Noreen: It seemed to me like Kit Kittredge was calculated for a sort of broad appeal. If you're an upper-middle-class kid, you recognize yourself in the beautiful homes and clothes. If you're from a less well-off family, maybe you identify with the story line of the parents' jobs in peril, with the foreclosures.


Torie: One of the things I liked about the books and the dolls is that they didn't shy away from controversial subjects—like in the Samantha book when her friend Nellie talked about a girl's hair getting yanked out of her head while working at a thread factory. The story ends well for Nellie, but you know it didn't end well for that other girl.

Noreen: Was it important for all of you to own a doll that looked like you?

Nina: I'm so mad there's an Asian-American Girl now. Where was she in 1988? I had to make do with the Hawaiian Barbie.

Amaka: I'm black and I loved Samantha, who is white, and my best friend, who looks like Samantha, got Addy, who's black. I think it's all a bit random.

Torie: There was no curly-haired half-Jewish doll, but it never bothered me much. Without American Girl, I probably never would have owned a black doll.

Noreen: I had red hair, so did Felicity, and Nancy Drew, and Anne of Green Gables, so I glommed onto them. They were "spunky," and I began to see myself as spunky.

Nina: The AG world emphasizes that context shapes individual identity. Each of these girls' narratives is defined by external circumstances: where they grew up, when they grew up, what kind of communities they're born into. The ethnic AGs—Josefina, who is Hispanic; Addy, who is black; Kaya, who is Native American—are very much defined by their racial identity. Which is certainly historically accurate ... but it feels very essentialist to me somehow.

Noreen: Since this is Fourth of July weekend, I think we should talk a little about the American-ness of them. Do they represent shared American values? Or would red and blue staters pick up on different cues from these stories?

Nina: The AGs are actually brilliantly bipartisan ... all those wholesome, up-by-your-bootstraps morals wedded to classically Bobo blue-state aesthetics.

Torie: I think the company in its earlier incarnation was very spectrum-friendly, particularly Felicity, the patriot, and Molly, whose stories take place during World War II. But the later additions seem to represent a lot of what conservatives hate—political correctness, multiculturalism, feminism—that sort of thing. A few years ago the company faced protests from the right when it was revealed that it gives money to a reproductive rights group.

Noreen: Aren't the American Girls in a way the stereotypical superwomen? In Kit, it's the boy who faints, and the girl who saves the day—but it's an emotional rescue (hey there, Rolling Stones) more than a physical one. As Kit's friend says at one point in the movie, "Everyone lives happily ever after, and often with some very nice outfits," which seems like a good summing up of one aspect of the AG philosophy.

Torie: I think it's worth noting that if American Girl weren't the huge moneymaking, influential, successful venture it has become, we wouldn't have a big-budget movie for little girls coming out this summer with a strong role model their own age. American Girl's success means that girls get to have a summer blockbuster movie.If you have daughters, will you point them toward or away from American Girl?

Nina: I think I'll get my kids the catalogs. I miiiight consider getting them a doll, but I'd definitely pair those plodding books with some better kids' lit.

Noreen: I suppose I would buy the historical dolls and stories, but not the ones that look like you, even though I had one of those. I think that there are better ways for little girls to create a self-myth than by clothing a little mini-me.

Nina: I guess I'm glad that there are alternatives to Barbie out there. But honestly, did any of you ever really feel that Barbie was some monolithic presence in your life? I'm just not entirely convinced the wholesomeness of the AG message balances out the commodity fetishism of it all.

Noreen: The girls at the movie last night said they liked American Girl dolls better than their Barbies.

Nina: But when we asked them which part they liked best, they said "the outfits." (Or at least one of them did.) You sort of wonder, if we were to visit Kit Kittredge as a grown woman in—what, the late '40s or '50s?—would she have had the hot career she wanted and the traditional family she finds so important?

Noreen: The beauty of it is that we don't know—we can create our own version of how they turn out.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Amaka Maduka is a Slate intern.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.