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

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July 3 2008 3:52 PM

The Thinking Girl's Barbie?

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

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Click image to expand.
Madison Davenport, Abigail Breslin, and Brieanne Jansen in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opened nationwide in theaters this week. The movie, which tells the story of a girl growing up during the Great Depression, is the first big-screen film based on the American Girl dolls. Pleasant Co., founded in 1986 and later sold to Mattel, made American Girl a cultural phenomenon by marketing lines of dolls with their own books, accessories, and even furniture—not to mention a magazine, arts and crafts products, and customized dolls to look like you. Even Barack Obama's daughters have them—the Obama campaign tells Slate that the two "love American Girl. Malia (who will be 10 on Friday) and Sasha (who is 7) have both the personalized dolls, and others, including Kaya and Samantha." Four Slate women who grew up with American Girl saw the movie and discussed whether the product line encourages reading or shopping, what kinds of role models the characters make, and more. (Note: This discussion contains mild spoilers about Kit Kittredge.)

Torie Bosch: I'll kick-start this discussion by asking, Did you have any American Girl dolls as a kid? I had Samantha, Addy, and Felicity, and read the books before committing to the dolls.

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Noreen Malone: I had Felicity and, later, a custom doll that looked like me. I think the books came either later or simultaneously.

Amaka Maduka: I had Samantha. And I had most of her books—and read the catalogs religiously.

Nina Shen Rastogi: I never had a doll and don't think I read any of the books, either—my American Girl experience began and ended with the catalogs. But those catalogs! I loved them. I pored over them. I would read them in bed. They were poetry in themselves. Torie, you had almost as many dolls as the Obama girls! What made you decide to "commit" to the dolls you did?

Torie: It was mostly about the time periods for me. I was always interested in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, hence Felicity, a Virginia girl torn between her patriot family and her loyalist friend, and Addy, who fled to the North to escape slavery. American Girl books helped spark my interest in history—as well as an embarrassing taste for historical fiction that continues to this day with tripe like The Other Boleyn Girl.

Amaka: I chose Samantha, a Victorian-era girl raised by her grandmother, because she seemed to be the most glamorous. I liked her outfits and all her accessories—especially the ice cream maker. But I also really loved her best friend, Nellie. I guess the historical period actually fascinated me too, come to think of it.

Noreen: Did you keep up your fascination with the Victorians through adolescence? Were the American Girls a history gateway drug for you?

Amaka: Yes, and that drug was ecstasy, my friend. I was actually obsessed with Victorian houses, and even befriended a girl because her name was Victoria.

Nina: I blame the American Girl catalog for shaping my tastes. All I want in life is to live in a slightly run-down, 1800s brownstone in Brooklyn and surround myself with vintage tchotchkes.

Noreen: Did having an American Girl doll help make you grow up to be the woman who looks for, say, the perfect Queen Anne chair or a vintage-y Anthropologie outfit, rather than a mod Barbie McMansion and something corseted from Bebe? Or am I reading waaay too much into this?

Amaka: At least for the characters, it isn't just stuff for stuff's sake. Most of their possessions reflect something about who the girl is, what historical period she is from, her ambitions.

Nina: What I loved about AG was the attention to historical detail. I was clicking through the Web site just now and came across this description of an outfit you can buy for Addy:

Addy's Birthday Pinafore & Snood
For her birthday, Addy gets to dress her best in:
An ecru blouse with double-puffed sleeves, rickrack trim, and three tiny buttons
A chocolate-and-cream-checked pinafore
Fancy knit stockings
A fashionable snood trimmed with a satin ribbon and yellow feathers that holds back her hair

Those words are so delicious—ecru, rickrack, snood.

Torie: I visited the American Girl store in Manhattan not long ago, while killing time, and was astounded by all of the stuff for sale. But I don't know how much it bothers me. The message is so positive—learning about history, feminism, being true to yourself, reading, friendship—that I might be OK with the rampant commercialism.

Noreen: I think you're getting at a couple things we all find a little troubling—the training in consumerism (the next step was the Delia's catalog!) and the class issues that the dolls bring up. They're fairly pricey.

Nina: I like the idea of teaching kids that quality and craftsmanship matter and that investing in special items can be OK. But it doesn't just stop at the dolls—there's the outfits, and the furniture, and the tea parties. And that makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels too much like a patina of morality masks conspicuous consumption. It's the kind of rationalization that makes it seem OK to spend thousands of dollars on, say, a mint-condition Eames chair.

Amaka: Maybe it isn't so bad that it's so heavy on the materialism—maybe it teaches responsible, individual consumerism. If you're going to spend, at least spend wisely and according to your own tastes.

Torie: The American Girl site says that, today, Samantha goes for $90 including a paperback book. I'm actually more uneasy about the way they peddle the "other" stuff—like the $325 "doll storage cabinet." I'd be interested to know the sales numbers on those items.

One Slatester's childhood dolls
One Slatester'schildhood Addy, Felicity, and Samantha dolls

Nina: An AG doll would be a ludicrous purchase for many families. That means that they're aimed not at all girls, but specifically at middle-class and upper-class girls. When you think about it, Kit Kittredge is a weird Depression story. Her folks are fairly well off. They seem to maintain a relatively "normal" existence throughout this devastating time.

Amaka: I do think that even if you are less well-off, you still can find someone to identify with among the dolls. They aren't all well-off. They're just all really lucky. And Kit seems like a catchall character: She's rich; no wait, she's poor, but she still has cute stuff, and life's hard, but it's fun. It's very easy to say, "Hey, that's just like me."

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