Hello, Lanie the organic gardener
April 26, 2013 2:00 PM   Subscribe

The Atlantic reports on the 2008 removal/"archiving" of the original three American Girl dolls, dolls whose arrival on the market in 1986 represented a "sensibility about teaching girls to understand thorny historical controversies and build political consciousness."

The original dolls, Samantha, Kirsten and Felicity are no longer sold to make room for dolls like Saige, the "2013 Girl of the Year."

HuffPo responds: How Radical Can a $105 Doll Be?
posted by roomthreeseventeen (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up with American girl dolls. I was really into them. Samantha was my favorite and in retrospect, I do think she was the most wish-fullfillmenty of the dolls. Her life seemed very fancy; she lived in this beautiful Victorian home. That said, to this day I vividly remember a scene from one of her books where a child laborer is injured after her hair gets pulled into industrial machinery. That shit was real. It had an impact on me, as did the Molly stories involving WWII rationing. I remember being in elementary/middle school history lessons and thinking, "Oh yeah - that's like the part in the so-and-so books!"

I had one doll, and it was one of the 'create-your-own-that-looks-like-you!' ones derided in the article. But it came with a series of nice-quality blank books, so that I could write my own stories about her to match the ones for Felicity, Addy, etc. That was a pretty fantastic impetus for a kid with a budding interest in writing.

I can admit, despite my nostalgia, that the HuffPo piece is pretty on target. The rich girl is the protagonist, not her impoverished best friend. (Though it did get the gender roles bit wrong; I recall that most of the girls explicitly rejected prevailing gender roles in favor of going on adventures. I think we're introduced to Samantha while she ruins her nice stockings climbing a tree.)

Yes, the stories were all in service of selling absurdly expensive dolls/doll accessories. But they were still way better and more thoughtful than they had to be to make a quick buck. It's a shame they're moving away from something that clearly had a positive influence on the childhoods of many women.

Actually, American Girl produced a whole line of outstanding books that were really fantastic about treating girls like independent people with minds and anxieties and important dreams. I've been volunteering at getting this new rural primary school library up-and-running, and our recent shipment of books included a bunch of these used AG books about puberty, dealing with difficult situations, making friends, etc. Total thrill to see those included. Hope they're still being published, at least.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

It is sad that they've moved away from the historical aspects of the dolls. The relatively high cost meant that getting a Kirsten doll for my birthday was a really big deal, and I can't remember any other toy that I took care of in the same way. Sure, I spent ages lusting over the catalogs, but the historical detail in the accessories was more exciting than the multitude of clothing options.

("A spoon bag, complete with a wooden spoon like those Swedish farmers took to feasts." "A metal reproduction of a 1943 steel penny that was used during the war, when copper was in short supply")

Looking at the contrast between the old accessories and the new accessories for the remaining historical dolls, they've definitely been watered down. Compare this awesome rescue kit, writing kit, and tea cake making kit with the accessories for a current historical doll: Plastic food, purse, stuffed animal. Boooring.

It seems that Pleasant Company not only de-emphasized the historical dolls, but also transitioned away from the D.I.Y. nature those stories once encouraged. Sure, the doll and products were pricey, but there were still a ton of more affordable craft kits that they published, and after reading so many AG books about these girls sewing their own clothing, it seemed perfectly natural for me to start sewing clothes for my dolls. In fact, I think the only official American Girl clothing I had was the stuff that came with the original doll.

....and maybe I just realized why they moved away from that business model. I guess there's not as much money to be made by encouraging girls to make things themselves.
posted by redsparkler at 2:55 PM on April 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

The rich girl is the protagonist, not her impoverished best friend.

This is not always the case: I'll note that with the Felicity doll, it is her best friend Elizabeth who is rich, while the protagonist just does okay and has a lot of financial considerations to think of. Her grandfather may have owned a plantation, but she herself does not, and the girls must do things for themselves.
posted by corb at 3:13 PM on April 26, 2013

....and maybe I just realized why they moved away from that business model. I guess there's not as much money to be made by encouraging girls to make things themselves.

They just need to figure out how to halfway pander to gender roles.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:26 PM on April 26, 2013

This shift was apparent to me because when my friends and I were into the dolls, the historical characters were definitely the main focus. If you had just one doll, it was likely a historical character and I'm pretty sure I read every one of the historical books that were available. However, my sister is five years younger and I'm not sure if she read any of them or really had any interest at all in the historical characters, even though American Girl was definitely still an it-brand with her group of friends.

I credit the AG series with equipping me with a basic frame of American history and inspiring me to learn more. When I exhausted the AG books, I decided historical fiction was my favorite genre and branched out into other works. Maybe some of the critiques mentioned of the original characters and their story lines could have had some merit if AG was my only source for learning about history, but I have to agree with Solon and Thanks that the article is wrong to critique the series about gender roles.
posted by themoonfromthesea at 3:29 PM on April 26, 2013

But they replaced each of the original historical dolls with a new historical doll, and "Lanie the organic gardener and "Saige" are two of the annual limited edition contemporary dolls. They issue one every year, and she's only available for that year. The one a few years ago was Hawaiian. Then there are also the "lookalike" dolls, which are actually about 20 different dolls, you pick the one that looks the most like you.

And they still make terrific craft kits.
posted by padraigin at 3:50 PM on April 26, 2013

I can admit, despite my nostalgia, that the HuffPo piece is pretty on target.

I thought their characterization of the Addy books was a little unfair. Probably because I lived for the Addy books. I didn't really absorb any of the social critiques of the Kirsten or Molly books, but looking back, I think the Addy books did a lot to advance my understanding of racism in America. There's a really viscerally horrible scene early on in the first book, "Meet Addy," where Addy is supposed to be cleaning grubs from a row of cotton and is forced to eat the ones she missed. It's completely, completely horrible.

I also do think it was radical to write a children's book series that is told from the perspective of an enslaved little girl. I don't think that's a common perspective but it was really, really powerful.

And I always appreciated the company's refusal to sexualize the dolls. They were one of the only companies that was pushing back against the "getting older younger" thing that plagues so many girl's toys.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:39 PM on April 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

I couldn't even finish the first Addy book, which also contains scenes of whipping, for a week or so after I got it. Kristin's best friend died of cholera. They were powerful, wonderful stories, and I hope that the books at least remain in libraries for years. (Or the dolls-- hooray for that NYC public library!)
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems that Pleasant Company not only de-emphasized the historical dolls, but also transitioned away from the D.I.Y. nature those stories once encouraged.

The company that made American Girls was sold to Mattel in 1998.
posted by ApathyGirl at 5:06 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

The original dolls, Samantha, Kirsten and Felicity

I'm sure I'm not the first person to say it, but the original dolls were Samantha, Kirsten, and MOLLY. Felicity was the fourth doll.

I was under the impression that Samantha was still in production. At least she (and maybe also Molly?) was when I went to the American Girl store in NYC with my stepmother and her niece a couple years ago.

/Prissy Girly Girl Pedantry

I had Kirsten, though I really wanted Molly. My mom made me get Kirsten because her whole family is Swedish and blah blah heritage blah blah *sorry I can't hear you I'm daydreaming about Molly's fabulous tap-dancing costume*
posted by Sara C. at 5:46 PM on April 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

the HuffPo piece is pretty on target. The rich girl is the protagonist, not her impoverished best friend.

Seconding corb - due to having Kirsten, I also had all the Kirsten books about the passage to America in steerage (IIRC they were fleeing famines in Sweden), Kirsten's best friend dying of cholera in the lower decks, and arriving poverty-stricken in America only to be swindled out of the last of their assets. When they finally get underway to Minnesota, they are forced to leave most of their things behind in some random town due to some kind of accident (axle breaks on the wagon? I forget -- something Oregon Trail ish for sure). They finally arrive at the farm of their long-lost Swedish-American relatives as poor relations.

Then there's another book where everyone makes fun of Kirsten for not being able to speak English, and possibly some other relatively downtrodden adventures. There's even a story about Kirsten making friends with a Native American girl.

Then again, it's telling that the cute Scandinavian immigrant girl is made into a doll whereas her Native American friend is just a supporting character in one story.

I believe later they did make a Native American doll, though that was long after I was too old for this stuff. There were also Chicana, Black, and Jewish dolls added to the roster later on.
posted by Sara C. at 5:53 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh man I just remembered the plot of Kirsten's Christmas book (each of the books was about some stock experience -- there was the introductory book, one about school, one about summer, one about birthdays, one about a holiday, etc.), wherein Kirsten's big Christmas surprise is that they FINALLY get their stuff back from Whereversville, including Kirsten's rag doll.

Yes, the big amazing coolest thing that happened to this girl all year is that she got back a homemade toy made of fabric scraps that she already owned.

So, no, not all the stories were about rich girls. Though I think the article is right that the rich girl dolls were more popular and all their cool stuff sold better. Nobody wanted poor Kirsten's dumb rag doll, they wanted Samantha's beautiful porcelain one with real hair.
posted by Sara C. at 6:05 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a dad, I loved the historical aspects of the books, too....though when we read the big book about Kirsten's history & immigrant experience, we had to kind of hurriedly flip past the two-page spread about the 130 simultaneous hangings of the Sioux Uprising which featured pictures of the gallows. because my daughter was like five years old, and whoa.

I thought the series of books about some of the doll characters were actually quite good books for girls that age. And the customer service of the company -- where you can send in a mangled doll for a $50 overhaul and get it back in hospital scrubs! -- is still said to be good.

AG ain't what it used to be, but they are still making a good product.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:34 PM on April 26, 2013

I was too old to be the target market for these books, but I have a career in museums, mostly history museums, and I can't overstate how influential these books were in encouraging girls to read more history, visit history museums, and in many cases, follow the museum careers that their interests led to. It is really something amazing. They had quite an impact.
posted by Miko at 6:39 PM on April 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

This is kind a crap take on it the way . Three of the historical dolls have been archived. There are still, by my count, thirteen historical dolls (including sidekick dolls) available. New historical dolls are added; the most recent are Marie Grace and Cecile.

There are also contemporary "Doll of the Year" dolls, which are limited runs of, you guessed it, one year. That includes the "Lanie the organic gardener" doll. These dolls started appearing in 2001, well before any historical dolls were removed from sale, beginning in 2009. I've read the books and watched the movies about both historical and contemporary characters with my 9-year-old daughter, and I also disagree with the argument that American Girl has shied away from tough subjects. Bullying, homelessness, learning disabilities, and ecological and environmental awareness and advocacy aren't exactly fluffy topics.

So, as a parent who is trying to raise a girl with age appropriate information, toys, and opportunities, I'm pretty damn OK with how American Girl is bringing contemporary issues into play with contemporary stories my daughter can identify with, while still supporting and encouraging the historic exploration centered around the historical character dolls.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 6:49 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

As much as I roll my eyes at the shift in focus away from the historical dolls and toward the contemporary ones*, the Doll Of The Year dolls tend to be pretty wholesome, empowering and girlhood friendly. They always have an active hobby like gardening, horseback riding, gymnastics, etc. If the choice is between Lanie The Organic Gardener or a Bratz doll, I know what I'd rather give a little girl. Even if Lanie is white and middle class and not educating children on any particular historical atrocity.

*While the company still makes historical dolls, most of the girls I know who own them now either have contemporary dolls or one of the "historical" dolls depicting a 20th century time period. It's interesting to me, too, that the historical dolls seem to fall into three groups: 20th century relatively modern girls, Historically Oppressed Ethnic girls, or pretty pretty princess wealthy 19th century (white) girls.
posted by Sara C. at 7:03 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know much about these dolls (I'm from the Cabbage Patch Kid era, myself) but a few years ago I somehow came across a catalog of pioneer girl Kirsten's little outfits and dishes and St. Lucia's Day headdresses ...... and I suddenly wanted to spend hundreds of dollars on little doll accessories.

They make some really wonderful stuff. Hopefully that is still the case.
posted by gerstle at 7:37 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a dad of a nine year old and I am always happy to go to the AG store. I like the historical dolls better than the dolls of the year or the accessories for the just like me dolls.

I don't have any nostalgia for a purer era but AG still allows our family to make good choices if we want to. We can get all the historical novels, and clothes and we can get their craft kits, we don't have to just get fancy outfits.
posted by shothotbot at 7:50 PM on April 26, 2013

My daughter has both historical and contemporary AG dolls. She's also read a number of the books about the characters of dolls she doesn't have. Just the interest in AG dolls kind of opened up the gateway to those historical stories, in a way I don't think would have happened if I tried to bring her to them cold.

And the AG books for girls - about friendship and on-line safety and developing bodies - have been good to excellent tools for opening discussion on those topics and providing reference when she doesn't want to have the whole Mom Talk.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:02 PM on April 26, 2013

My nine-year-old niece has Molly, which was also my favorite character when I was a kid obsessing over the catalogs and reading all the books. My niece is more into the modern outfits, but I always buy her the 1940s clothes and accessories for birthdays and Christmas, because I didn't have an $80 doll when I was a kid, dammit, and now's my chance to make up for it. She doesn't seem to mind too much. I wish they still made the steamer trunk, though.
posted by donajo at 9:20 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

So I was watching Big Miracle tonight and before the movie aired, they had an ad for "An American Girl: McKenna Shoots For The Stars." I ... don't even know what to think of the idea of "American Girl: The Movie." Apparently there are a lot of them now.

posted by jenfullmoon at 11:35 PM on April 26, 2013

Just to echo Miko, I work in heritage, and I was squarely within the target bracket for Pleasant Company -- I clearly remember absolutely poring over every catalogue, and being jealous of the original antique doll and accessories that Pleasant T. Rowland supposedly based the AG dolls on. I had Kirsten and Felicity, and loved them, and their books. I could probably draw a direct line between reading about Kirsten's adventures and the fact that I'm an immigrant now, that I love history and, frankly, that I'm racing through the Kristen Lavransdatter novels. I would love to see a long-term study on how these dolls affected girls and our interest in American history, reading, crafts, etc.
posted by kalimac at 2:35 AM on April 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Oh man, someone tell me that Marie-Grace and Cècile find out they're actually half-sisters because Cècile's mother is placĂ©e to Marie-Grace's father.

Come on, they have the same facial structure! Don't tell me they're not related!
posted by Katemonkey at 10:21 AM on April 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

So, no, not all the stories were about rich girls. Though I think the article is right that the rich girl dolls were more popular and all their cool stuff sold better. Nobody wanted poor Kirsten's dumb rag doll, they wanted Samantha's beautiful porcelain one with real hair.

Yeah this was me. I actually had the Samantha doll plus one change of outfit, but had everyone's books (Samantha, Kirsten, Molly, plus all the plays), mostly a function of my parents' emphasis on education over too many toys - they would have rather I suffocated under books in my room rather than have more than like three Barbies (exaggeration).

I had the sailor dress outfit with working whistle and matching high button boots. I loved all her clothes though and wanted everything. Loved the detail on all the little accessories, like the petits fours for her birthday party. And all her little shoes and jewelry. And her long shiny hair. OMG I'm realizing I still want it all now.

But um, educational. They were also very educational. I liked learning about how Samantha and her family had to wear big dusters and goggles just to go around in the car because of all the dust and grease from the car and road. Whoops, that's a clothes memory again.
posted by sweetkid at 11:36 AM on April 27, 2013


I had a change of outfit for Kirsten, too, but it was just another dumb calico dress.

(Granted, at that age I was Laura Ingalls Wilder obsessed and was all about the calico dresses for my doll, but a Real Working Whistle it was not.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on April 27, 2013

2006: Rick Santorums semi-homeschooled daughter Sarah dressed like her American Girl doll.
posted by iviken at 12:43 PM on April 27, 2013

yeah, you could buy clothes for girls that matched the dolls' clothes.
posted by sweetkid at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, no, not all the stories were about rich girls. Though I think the article is right that the rich girl dolls were more popular and all their cool stuff sold better. Nobody wanted poor Kirsten's dumb rag doll, they wanted Samantha's beautiful porcelain one with real hair.

What? No. I had Kirsten (still do, somewhere. Poor thing is afflicted with something called silver eye). I got her because she went fishing and had a lunch in a pail and how awesome is that? A few years before I was obsessed with Molly, and my mom got me a rip-off doll (no easy feat in that era) so I could play bomb shelter and victory garden and smuggle-worms-in-a-can-in-your-shirt-through-the-camp lake with her.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:56 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also if anyone wants some awesome tomboy nostalgia, watch the Felicity movie on netflix. Horses! Stealing horses! In your britches! Hells yeah.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the person who wrote the HuffPo piece claiming that the books don't deal with gender enough is wrong. I mean, 18th century girl IN BRITCHES so she can STEAL A HORSE. I tend to mock the Samantha, Felicity, and Kitt stories because those girls are relatively privileged, but seriously, horse stealing. Horse. Stealing.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm actually pretty curious to read some of the other historical girl stories that have come out in the years since I was in touch with the AG universe. What kinds of adventures do Kaya, Josefina, and Rebecca get up to?
posted by Sara C. at 2:03 PM on April 27, 2013

I had Samantha (in fact I still have her, in a display case at my mom's house) and I definitely remember how awesome and non-bullshit the books were. Samantha's a rich girl, but a lot of her storylines are about recognizing her own class privilege, and her friendship with Nellie (who did get a doll of her own, eventually) made a huge impression on me. The appendix with the photos of child sweatshop workers was no joke... ditto the cholera outbreak in the Kirsten books. And the Addy books definitely addressed slavery and racism with impressive realism.

I also learned to sew by making clothes for Samantha with my mom... you used to be able to order sewing patterns from the Pleasant Company catalog. I was (and am) a giant nerd for Victorian/Edwardian clothing, which is why I picked Samantha in the first place.

I was pretty bummed when Mattel bought Pleasant Company. I just knew they'd trend in a more mainstream direction, and boy did they. I still love how un-sexualized and chunky the dolls are, and it's cool as hell that they have so many ethnicities in the basic dolls. But the historical books were what really made them special.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 3:45 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would also like to thank this thread for introducing me to the American Girl doll wiki, because I didn't have things I needed to do anyway, honest. *clicks 'random' again*
posted by kalimac at 1:41 PM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ditto on the American Girl Doll Wiki! Because of that intro, I have now seen a Ban Hammer.
posted by jeanmari at 7:46 PM on April 28, 2013

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