A-Z Challenge: On American Girls Dolls and Being a Molly

A

When I was a child, I was an ugly duckling. I was terribly thin; I had big glasses, and my mom just didn’t know what to do with my uber-curly hair, so she always tried to just blow dry it straight, and I ended up with a fuzzy hairdo. I loved to read, Coke-bottle glasses sliding down my nose as I buried it in a book. I liked to play with my dolls, making up stories None of my dolls looked like me–until I got American Girl doll Molly.

Molly had glasses. Her mousy brown hair was always braided to keep it out of her face. And she had stories. Those stories were historical, yes. I got to learn about WW II in an immersive way. But I felt a connection to this doll after reading how badly she wanted a dog (then, as now, I loved dogs), how fiercely she could love a friend and still be angry with her (I had a friend who stayed with us often because her mother was very ill, and we loved one another but fought when we’d been around one another too much–like Molly and her English friend Emily when Emily is staying to be out of danger), how Molly went to camp and had such fun despite hating bugs and getting poison ivy (I loved camp and the outdoors but hated bugs), and how badly Molly wanted to be the beautiful star of the show (wearing pin curls and removing glasses for the recital bore much resemblance to how badly I wanted to look like the other girls).

I don’t remember which of the dolls I got next, but over the years, my parents bought Kirsten, Felicity, and Samantha for me. They always bought the doll and the books; I rarely got any of the additional things that the company sold for the dolls. And honestly, that was fine with me. What I wanted was to play with the dolls and tell their stories. I didn’t need a lot of accouterments for that. I read, and I fixed their hair, and I pretended conversations between them should they ever meet one another. I admired Felicity’s red hair, which I wished I had, and I rejoiced when she got her horse, Penny (much like with dogs, I have always had a soft spot for horses). I was entranced with the way Samantha stood with her friend, Nellie, as she was orphaned and sent to work in a factory. I wept with Kirsten when her friend died on the way to America.

Later, I would question some of these narratives. I would recognize the privilege that is hidden in the packaging. Sure, it looks great to have dolls that are historically placed, who come into contact with the issues of the day and are active rather than passive. And they do some amazing things. My dolls were all white, though. It wasn’t until 1993, seven years and several dolls after the company began (and a little past my collecting days), that Addy, a black girl living during the Civil War, introduced any sense of diversity into the line. And the historical “Looking Back” pieces at the end of the books rarely concentrated on women’s and girls’ history, instead giving a broad-brush approach to the time period. That would’ve worked for an introduction; but for a conclusion to books that had focused so much on the girl, it left her out of history once again. It was disheartening.

And those dolls were—-are—-expensive. They can cost hundreds of dollars with accessories, and even without accessories, just doll and books, they’re generally $100 or so. The company has been purchased by Mattel, and the original dolls have been mostly archived in a “Historical Line” in favor of promoting dolls that are more contemporary. Unsurprisingly, these dolls are mostly white, privileged, and don’t do too much boat-rocking. They’re not tomboys like Felicity, child labor activists like Samantha (or suffragettes like her aunt Cordelia), or escaping, like Addy, from an oppressive system (slavery, just in case that wasn’t clear) to find their family. If they’re like Isabelle, this years’ doll, they’re worried about keeping up with their classmates and at Art Schools.

I wouldn’t have found anything to identify with in Isabelle. I wasn’t blonde, artsy, or all that worried about keeping up with my classmates. I went to a large school in a small town–if you didn’t go to the local private school, you went to the public school, and that was that. I was awkward. I got picked on for my weird hair and big glasses and for being ok with touching mice and hamsters and earthworms and all those things I wasn’t supposed to want to touch. Now there’s nothing wrong with being an Isabelle–with being a blonde at an art school worried about keeping up with your classmates. That just wasn’t me, and it isn’t many other girls. I was a Molly, though I wanted desperately to be a Samantha. I’m still a Molly.

And I can’t help but think of how many American Girls are not represented in that collection–even fewer now than previously, even less emphasis on empowering them, encouraging them to part of large social movements. Where’s our Civil Rights Era doll, or a gay rights advocate? Where are our Native American girls after extended European contact (the one Native American doll, Kaya, has a story that takes in 1764)? Β It’s time we see those American girls.

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  1. “I was a Molly, though I wanted desperately to be a Samantha. I’m still a Molly.”
    Yes! I so wanted to be a Samantha! I admired her ability to actually stand up for what she thought was right, being strong and brave. Where as Molly’s insecurities were more clear, and she cared about frivolous things despite knowing there were more important things.
    I was so sad when I found out the historic line had been “archived” there’s such wealth still to be found there, and as you noted, there’s a lot more diversity that could be explored.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I still have the few Cabbage Patch Dolls that I owned, too. I even remember their names. My dolls were really important to me—I acted out elaborate fantasies with them.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I know it’s only part of the point of your post, but I really wish I’d had a doll I could totally relate to like that when I was a kid. What I did have was a Cabbage Patch doll who was important to me for all sorts of reasons, but she didn’t come with stories or the same type of connectability that Molly did for you.

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    1. I had a Cabbage Patch doll—she’s still around, too.

      And I can understand what you mean. One of the reasons I still have such a profound memory of that doll is the connection I had to the way she looked and to her story.

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    1. Yes indeed. I played with dolls quite a bit, but it was more often an exercise in acting out fiction than anything else. I liked to make up elaborate stories about and with the dolls.

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  3. This is awesome. I had no idea all that was happening in your head at the time, and I’ve learned something about girls from this. I am so happy you grew up to be a person who is capable of teaching me stuff πŸ™‚

    I do remember noting the striking resemblance between you and Molly, though.

    Since you’re exercising a professional skill here, I’m assuming you’re either totally correct about the conclusions not really being conclusions and the changes to this line in recent years, or have at least presented a defensible position. I buy the argument. And this is an awesome post. It flows. It connect your personal experience with the larger culture, and the art is excellent.

    I also think this touches our Feminist Friday discussion, and the experiential stuff you’re sharing here provides anecdotal evidence to support my claim that we’re not making the kind of progress we were making for a while in the 90s. I know anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much, but it’s worth something.

    I’ve decided you’re the last stop on my A to Z every day. I’ll tell you what I think of your posts from a writerly and analytical point of view, and I’ll share things with you from the day.

    If you haven’t seen my A to Z page at the Writing Catalog, check it out. Assuming I survive the challenge, we’ll have an index of no fewer than 150 writing blogs by the end of the month. I’m not linking it here because I want to link this instead:

    http://amandasnoseinabook.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/a-z-challenge-day-1a-about-amandas-nose-in-a-book/

    If you haven’t checked her out for the first time yet, you should comment on her “B” post tomorrow. She’s into YA lit, and off to an ingenious start.

    Now I have to go and see what’s happened in Mississippi in the last 12 hours.

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    1. I hate to leave such a short reply to such a long comment, but yes, I think you’re right about progress going backward, and I was thinking a lot of this stuff as a kid, even if I had to get older to recognize and sort out what bothered me and why about parts of this.

      Also, thanks for that heads-up. I’ll check out the blog as soon as I catch up on comments.

      It’s been a helluva week.

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  4. I was Samantha. Chloe wanted Molly so bad this year but she went into the archives and sold out long before Christmas. If I had known Molly was the one who taught you how to love that friend who stayed with you so much I would have paid the $300 for one of the ones on Amazon they had after the American girl site ran out. That was a valuable lesson. πŸ˜‰

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    1. Oh you silly. That one wasn’t you. It was when Gabby’s mom was so sick that she’d have to stay over for a week or more at a time.

      I never got tired of you. (Sap, sap, sappy…)

      Besides, the lesson learned was that I could love and hate at the same time, and that it was ok to need a time-out from someone. Very valuable lesson for an introvert. lol

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      1. Oh yes I forgot you sheltered gabby too… And we did get mad at each other but I still did- and do love you fiercely

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        1. haha…We did get mad, and often, but I think more so when we were teens. Maybe? I’ve a fuzzy memory, but I love you fiercely right back. πŸ˜›

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  5. My daughter – the one turning 21 this month – enjoyed the historical stories when she was younger. And she did have an American Girl doll — one that looked like her, with brown hair, brown eyes, & slightly tan skin. It was important that she have a toy that was like her, when so many toys & other representations were blonde, blue-eyed & very fair, & American Girl provided that.

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    1. You know, I should’ve mentioned that I ended up with one of those too, just as a fun present when I was older, but it bears little resemblance to me. They didn’t have curly haired dolls or my eye color, and the features were sort-of the same on all the dolls, even with different skin tones.

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  6. You bring up a lot of great points. I had Kirsten as a child and now my daughter has Felicity and Marie-Grace. I love the history she learns from them. And I never thought about the “Girl of the Year” dolls in that way,…maybe because we don’t have them. But they don’t seem to tackle larger issues the same way the historical line does. Maybe that is to help broaden their audience appeal? Something for everyone? Who knows. Good post.

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    1. Thanks!

      I think the newer dolls are definitely about broadening their appeal–they’re very Barbie-ish, which makes sense coming from Mattel. I’m glad that they haven’t totally done away with the historical girls, but I’m sad that they’ve taken a backseat to the newer dolls.

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    1. hee. I’m considering, when I have the disposable income (if?), buying Addy at the very least, if not also Josephina and Kaya. As a children’s literature buff, they’re my kind of thing, but they’re really the only dolls I’d go in for at this point.

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  7. Interesting post. I had heard of these dolls, but didn’t know much about them and have never actually seen pictures. Like you, I wear many hats, one of them being a Ph.D. candidate. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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    1. I really do love the dolls, even with their problems. And cool—nice to meet a fellow academic. I’ll be poking about on your blog. πŸ™‚

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  8. I read my way through these up until Josefina I think, by then I still had an interest, but they were just too below my reading level. I read some of Kit’s, but I don’t think I finished them. I’m not a fan of the modern girls that are around for a year, but I do like the customizable ones, which is what I have. I think the old books are still relevant and needed, and are great for libraries, but I could do without the modern ones. There are so many other books with modern girls, why do they have to have them?

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    1. I read them well after I was “too old” for them, especially as I always read far above my grade level. Despite their lower level of reading, I enjoyed the attention to details of the time period and being able to see what it might’ve been like to live in a different time. I also enjoyed all the things they did that I would never do…I was living vicariously, I suppose.

      I think the more modern books are there because Mattel has decided that, in revamping the brand, they need to offer more contemporary toys to sell better. I’m just not convinced that they’re right about that.

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      1. My reading level was always higher than my grade too, which is why I still loved them but just couldn’t read them since I was more interesting in reading books that were longer and more in depth. But I plan to go back and read the ones I missed and the ones for the newer historical girls.

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        1. Yeah, I was 10 when Addy came out, and by then I’d already progressed past those books and the doll collecting, which is why I never got any of the others. I do want to read some of the newer ones too, though.

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  9. I think these dolls got popular for a younger generation than me, but your post brought to light the value they presented to girls beyond being a plaything or collectible. I’m sad to learn they seem to be going the way of the corporate “girl toy” ghetto.

    Jean, visiting for the A-Z Challenge from Rantings and Ravings of an Insane Writer

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    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by!

      I’m sure that to some girls, they were (and are) just a plaything and a symbol of how much money parents are willing to spend on a doll. But they also can and do teach us things, and they were meant to. It’s unfortunate that the diversity is/has been lacking and that the line has changed so much, though.

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  10. My sister and I loved these dolls. Between the two of us we ended up with Kirsten, Samantha, Molly, Felicity, and Addy. Part of what I loved was the details on the dolls. It was not just clothes it was shoes and the accessories were often practical. I loved the books and my grandma actually found patterns to make clothes for the dolls and did. It is true that they were very whitewashed although I thought the Addy doll was a great addition.

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    1. Yes, the details were amazing. Felicity’s little coral necklace and purse with handkerchief; Kirsten’s belt with wooden spoon. They were so very detailed, and the details came out of the stories.

      I always loved their Christmas outfits. Eventually, my mom bought those, and we still dress them up and display them at Christmas sometimes, as their outfits are neat reminders of how Christmas has changed over the years.

      I loved Addy. At 10, I would’ve played with her just as much as the others, but my parents thought I was too old for the dolls–and they were very expensive. I read her stories and some of the others, but I never got any of the other dolls.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed reading it. I think yes, they’re about forming society through education and through play. I just wish they had more diversity.

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      1. I just read somewhere that the original Barbie came from Germany. However, this doll didn’t get famous in Germany until after her “return” from the US.

        On the other hand, in Austria and Germany existed and exist many other dolls besides Barbie, and the latter only plays somewhere in the lower leages.

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  11. I don’t think I realized how long these dolls have been around (saying, I think I am in the same age range as you and I never had one).

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    1. Pleasant Company started selling dolls in 1986…They were bought by Mattel in the late 1990’s though, and I think the quality has gone down more and more over the years.

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  12. I never got an American Girl doll. I did get most of the books, though. And I would wear out the catalogs just from reading them over and over again. I was all about the accessories, though. I had to have tiny teacups and baskets and blankets and handkerchiefs. I ended up making my own paper doll versions. With little paper dresses and little 3-D paper and scotch tape and colored pencil cups and napkins and baskets and everything. I had a full hand-made paper doll set of Kirsten, Samantha AND Felicity. It’s probably the most effort I’ve ever put into a creative endeavor and I’m including being an art major for five years.

    I think I was a Kirsten with Molly tendencies. I wanted to be a Felicity, though.

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    1. I envy your creativity. Like I said, I wasn’t particularly artsy. I remember having paper dolls of one of them, I think Felicity, that I manged to rip fairly quickly and was sad about losing. I loved looking at the catalogs, and I remember getting the magazine for a while but getting bored with it fairly quickly.

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  13. Fantastic post, being in the UK I know nothing of these dolls or their stories. Great start to the challenge πŸ˜‰

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    1. Thanks! The dolls are pretty neat, and that they come with books (6 or so) that feature them as characters in historical fiction is really cool.

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