• Wed, Jul 6 2011

In Defense Of The American Girl Doll Cult

The Pleasant Company, known for producing the very popular American Girl dolls, have become a full on “cult” to quote one mother I know. The catalogs brimming with expensive outfits, accessories, books, and even furniture make the preoccupation a costly one, and with an ever-increasing number of dolls to collect (including the “Just Like Me” series in which girls can have a doll designed in their likeness), it’s fairly easy to assume that the company is drawing your daughter in one tea dress at a time. But for all the trinkets and headbands that both girl and doll can wear, American Girl dolls can provide girls with an appreciation for history, values, and personal stories.

When I was a little girl, I begged for Samantha Parkington — the now discontinued Victorian brunette who lived with her “Grandmary.” I first came upon her picture in a Pleasant Company catalogs at a neighbor girl’s house when I was five years old. With frilly dresses, a big bow in her hair, and mary jane shoes, she not only looked like me, she also held a lot of the same interests that I did. I learned from the catalogs– the various passages that I circled on my bedroom floor with a ball point pen — that Samantha was a big reader and liked to paint. Her mother, like mine, had been an artist and Samantha was considering following such a path.

I remember my family remaining very aloof when it came to purchasing the actual doll, but they gave the books about her life first. I was just learning to read at the time, but I recall reading them with the grownups in my family and learning about all the details of her Victorian upbringing. I learned the meaning of the word “orphan” through her story as Samantha’s parents died in a boating accident when she was five years old — my age at the time. I considered what it must have been like for her to have her parents suddenly taken away, and what I might have done had that been me. It had never occured to me before that my parents could even die, or that one day they might not be there to take care of me. I didn’t even know any children who didn’t have parents, and so Samantha’s story began to intrigue me even more.

When I commented on Samantha’s pretty dresses in the book, my Grandmother told me that they were from what was called the “Victorian era.” I understood that Samantha was from a different time, but my Grandmother began to explain to me the specifics of that era — that even though the turn of the century brought new changes to our country, Samantha’s grandmother and guardian subscribed to a different set of beliefs about the place and ambitions of young girls.

When I finally got Samantha, it was on my sixth birthday. My father placed the doll into my bed while I was sleeping and so I woke up to the heroine who I had been reading so much about. I took her nearly everywhere with me and as more books and eventually accessories followed, my parents took to checking the Pleasant Company catalogs for birthdays and Christmas. My reading abilities improved and as I clutched Samantha on my lap, I read more about her friendship with the servant girl in her home, Nellie. I remember reading that Nellie was poor and came from a different “class” than Samantha — another word I came to understand through Samantha’s life. Nellie had spent most of her childhood working for other people — another concept that completely riveted my seven-year-old self. Aside from putting away groceries away from time to time, I never had any “work” as a kid, let alone slave away in a factory.

My family told me that there was a period where children were made to work but that these laws were determined bad for children. Still, the reality that I didn’t have to work as a little girl meant that I was “privileged,” a word my Grandmother made sure to use when articulating the differences between Nellie and Samantha. Nellie didn’t have any family wealth to put her fancy dresses or give her art lessons — she had more fundamental concerns like food and where to sleep at night. Samantha and I, of course, never even gave a thought to how these needs would be fulfilled and by the time I was eight years old, I began to see that Samantha and I had more in common than avid reading and mothers who painted.

By age ten I had become obsessed with Victorian history and literature — but unknowingly. What started as a love for Samantha’s aesthetic, her lace and bows, lead to book covers and other stories that echoed her themes and time period. I became intrigued with The Turn Of The Screw because I realized it was a book that she may have read in her lifetime. When I got into the fifth grade, my father recommended that I read Little Women because a lot of the characters were also girls like Samantha who lived, although not nearly as richly, as she did. I began to see the historical links between Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, my other favorite childhood heroine, and Samantha. Both of them wore pinafore dresses for outdoor play, the white apron over the blue dress making Alice suddenly more familiar to me.

Samantha Parkington and her fictitious life were not only a large part of my girlhood, but she was indefinitely the seed from which many of my interests as a young woman grew. An early appreciation for history as well as women’s narrative within history began with her face and her story. These interests were no doubt fostered by having this little doll who had a life that I could not only read and comprehend, but also touch and hold as I held her in my bedroom wondering about her day to day existence. Having Samantha also have gave me an awareness for the experiences of other girls and children — to get glimpses into what it was like to have been a young girl one hundred years from now.

The accessories and dresses may be costly, but if presented in the right context with parents who stress not only the delicate socks and gloves, but also the cultural context of the doll, American Girls can give kids more than a $22.99 Bratz doll ever could. The Pleasant Company’s line may cost more, but when you consider the message, the enduring quality, and the personal stories of the dolls, Samantha and Co. are very positive and enriching alternatives. With an emphasis on storytelling, history, and placing girls as fully developed protagonists of their own stories, American Girl Dolls are a “cult” worth belonging to.

(photo: fanpop.com)

 

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  • Stephanie

    I couldn’t agree more! I read just about every single American Girl book, and it was a great way to learn about different eras and even how to read as a young girl. I even begged my parents to buy me the American Girl Cookbooks! Which have food stains all over the pages of my favorite recipes. Thanks for this article! It brought back a lot of the same feelings I had as a child with the Molly books and doll!

  • Dani

    Agreed! These dolls and their stories are great educational examples for our children!

  • peach

    i swear, everything you just wrote could have been my story. my love for my samantha doll absolutely set off a passion for history and reading.

  • Emma

    Another great benefit of the AGD ‘cult’ is that when my girls each started asking for a doll it was also the perfect time to introduce simple ideas about money, value and the process and concept of savings. At this stage, for my girls they were around five, I think its a great time to introduce money, since the dolls do cost more than am item i would normally give my kids and because they each participated in the savings process they learned about value and I think understood that these dolls were special.

  • megan Farris

    i was nine when i recieved my american girl doll, samantha for christmas. my parents i know sacrificed to be able to get me the doll of dreams. so never once did i have the expensive clothes or furniture. what i did instead was use my imgination taking baby dolls clothes i already and putting her in them. for the next christmas, my parents got me the stand, a hair brush and an outfit. when i was eleven, i went to Chicago to visit family. i was excited at the possibility of going to american girl place. however after taking longer than expected at navy pier the trip to american girl was canceled. i was devistated so my loving uncle and aunt sent me clothes for samantha for my brithday that year. yes i know it was a little weird that at 12 i still liked dolls, but i was a shy, outcast and at time brushing and fixing her hair was my only comfort. anyway, fast forward to me at age 16. i have long since put samantha away for safe keeping, but in my us history class we are talking about inventions from the turn of the century. This was my area of expertise thanks to the samantha books and movie. i proudly raised my hand and said refridgerator. an answer that shocked my teacher as it was not mentioned in the text book nor had she talked about it in class. Who would have known that a doll i recieved for christmas at age nine would one day help me in school? sammy as i called her also taught me about responsibility as she was my first and most expensive doll. signaling that i was growing up and ready to have nice things. i am 19 now, and though children for me are in the far off future i will deffintly if my daughters asks get her an american girl doll. They are not only educational as they teach girls about times in our past but also because they teach girls how to take care of nice things. i will never forget that christmas or how much American Girl would impact me, by giving me a love of reading. i must have read each dolls series a hundered times. all of them full of lessons that are good for girls, especially in this day and age to learn. sorry this is so long but its something i really believe is good for kids.

  • Samantha Brill

    Having lived in Chicago, I can honestly say that the American Girl franchise is disgusting.

    I would see all the well off mothers and daughters worship this vile, backwards image of what is beauty.

    Its salon and theatre promote materialism beyond a doubt and the very look of these dolls is enough to make any child anorexic.

    The writer of this piece must be on amphetamines. Do yourself a favour and READ your daughter a book to teach her about the horrible Victorian era and STOP romanticizing it—and the disturbing aesthetic that these dolls portray.

    • Jen

      Seriously? The American Girl dolls don’t even have developed bodies. They are straight and flat like most pre-adolescent girls. Are you sure you’re not confusing this with Barbie or Bratz?

    • What

      This is either a troll or a very, very, very, very, very angry lady.

  • Jen

    I had Kirsten (who has also been discontinued) and I could not agree more with this essay. I had never even really learned about pioneer life and I devoured everything I could after reading her stories. The most interesting aspect of the dolls is that each one of them has some sort of hardship and it isn’t really sugar coated. Samantha is an orphan, Kirsten’s best friend dies and she is an immigrant. Molly and Felicity were both living through wars.

  • D

    I loved my Samantha doll to bits. I read the books for all of the girls, eagerly paged through the catalogs, and adored the items my parents did buy for me. Yes, they were expensive. Yes, they were well-loved. Yes, I learned.

    But. The Pleasant Company no longer exists. They were bought by Mattel in 1998. Ever since then their goal has been to make money, not to educate or inspire. It’s Mattel that has created the ‘cult’ of superstores with salons and tea party birthdays. They’ve also decreased the quality of the dolls–while maintaining the price.

    Thanks fr reminding me–I’m revisiting the topic on my site, too: http://subterfugemag.org/blog/2011/07/08/an-american-girl-abandoned-october-2008/

    They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

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  • Chelsea

    My doll was Josefina (actually wanted Molly but my grandmother was mistaken about which one) … and you can damn well bet that I had a sensitive response to immigrant debate in the Southwest ten years later. And as for the books, the gaps between Felicity and Molly-and-Emily got me into the complexities of the U.S. and U.K.’s relationships over time.

  • Laura

    I think your story is great, but a rare one. Most of the girls with these dolls won’t do the research you did. They just want them because they are expensive and the latest trend….the same reason their mothers want to buy them for their little princesses. My daughter will not be getting one. I have no clue why someone would pay so much for a doll.

    • Jess

      What a lost opportunity to teach your daughter autonomy in her choices. We pay lots of money sometimes for things that are of value to us. If you’d like to teach your daughter about the value of some objects vs. the value of a dollar – what a great conversation to be had.

      The reason that her story is rare is because her parents were involved in meeting and understanding something that their child valued, by bring even more of the things that they as parents value to the situation. What hard work from those parents it must have taken. It would be easier to just ignore the need for a doll, but it may open your daughter up to an amazing world if this was something that she identified as valuable to her. It could be a journey to take together.

      Children fall victim to the latest trends, sure, but if we don’t have conversations with them about this how will they ever learn? And, at the end of that conversation it may just end up that your dauther really values that toy, what what would be wrong with a daugther who is expressing and justifying her values?

  • Alana

    I completely love and agree with this article. The American Girl books were so key in getting me to love reading. I even now still have an obsession with history that I hope to one day pass on to my kids. Reading these books helped me to learn how to sympathize with and accept people more easily and made me into a child who was willing to be friends with anyone. Though the dolls weren’t as important to me, I did end up getting one and she’s something I will pass on to my daughter one day and was my absolute favorite toy, better than a barbie any day because I knew how expensive she was and treated her better because of it. I rember the books fondly and can’t wait to one day share their worlds with my daughters.

  • Jordan

    The American Girl collection are largely responsible for who I am today, especially in regard to my major in college. I started reading the books shortly after my cousin, who was four, got her Samantha doll, about age six or seven for me. I had been reading since before I was three, but that was the first time I ever started a series with anything having to history. I immediately fell in love. I have read every single American Girl book out there, subscribed to the magazine, and played with the paper dolls for a very long time. I still even have some. It was for Christmas just after I turned nine that I finally got a doll of my own, Josefina, along with a girl-sized dress, Kristen’s blue dress. I wore that dress at least once a week for two years until it fell apart, complete with apron, petticoats, a bonnet, and boots. The next year, I was allowed to design an American Girl of Today doll. While I was a natural blonde, I wanted a redheaded doll since I had never wanted to be tan and blonde like everyone else wanted. It was the only company that made one that my mom could find. So Amber was made and she and Josefina continued to have adventures, everything from the Oregon Trail to the first day of high school, for many years. We could never afford the accessories, or even another set of clothes for them, but I didn’t care. I loved my dolls. I felt comfortable playing with the dolls and making up stories to go with them. It taught me how to cooperate with other girls and learn about people who have lives different than mine.

    Today, I am a history major who has dreams of teaching, am fairly happy, and, with the help of henna, finally got her red hair.

  • Avodah

    I absolutely fell in love with the AGD books, and my Samantha doll. I don’t think this is a “trend” . They have been around since I was a little girl.

    I know it is expensive, but this is a high-quality toy that can be used in enriching ways. Which, I agree, is more than a Bratz doll offers.

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