When is a toy more than a toy? Brit Bennett raises the question in her recent Paris Review essay on the politics and history of black dolls. Referencing Addy Walker, she describes a sentiment long familiar to me: “the particular joy of an American Girl doll.”
“She is a doll your age who arrives with her story told; she allows you to leap into history and imagine yourself alongside her,” writes Bennett.
By the time I unwrapped Felicity from under my Christmas tree, I’d already sped through her six-book collection. I quickly identified with the “spunky, spirited girl growing up…just before the Revolutionary War.” Several years later, during a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I donned a mob cap and experimented using the word ’tis with apothecary shop owners, weaving through men with tricorn hats and women with bustles and stomachers.
The American Girl books and dolls provided young girls with stories about these historical, distinctive, and complicated female peers. They were successful enough to dominate library requests and birthday wish lists for thousands of girls like me growing up in the ‘90s.
The company’s focus shifted and expanded when the company approved a Mattel buyout. (They heard from at least one angry elementary schooler over that.) Since Barbie’s people took the reins nearly 20 years ago, American Girl’s attention to its historical lines has dwindled. In recent years, more than five of its historical dolls as well as its Best Friend collection (which featured an African American and an Asian-American doll) have since been retired.
When I walked into the Chicago flagship store last fall, the primary display was devoted to contemporary dolls and accessories. A spa reclining chair. A crock pot. Ear muffs. A camping tent. For shame.
Young girls know their own culture, interests, and surroundings well. Maybe too well, with our hyper-focus on personal achievement and the present. But the original American Girls offered something unique. Connecting with young female protagonists, young readers like me got to make age-appropriate connections with our country’s complex history. The Revolutionary War, Gilded Age, and Great Depression weren’t realities solely lived out by powerful, affluent men, as chronicled in our history books. They had real life repercussions for nine-year-old girls, too.
Bennett explores how Addy, American Girl’s first (and only current) African American doll, provides this bridge. Addy’s narrative begins in 1864, while she’s still enslaved. The book illustrates the horror of slavery. In one scene, her owner forces her to eat a worm. She worries that he’ll sell off her brother and father. Her story “humanizes slavery for children, which is crucial since slavery, by definition, strips humanity away.”
In the midst of our national debate over how we remember and teach Civil War and Confederate history, there could be a whole other discussion about how we introduce this era to children and the role of a character like Addy. (Some say such a doll isn’t an appropriate way to go about it.)
American Girl’s potency doesn’t come from exposing young Americans to history, but from its specific framing of history—to an audience of late 20th- and early 21st-century girls who are more culturally diverse than ever before.
Today’s young readers are far more likely to pick up a book about a bold, young heroine in a futuristic dystopian world. I’ve devoured these books, too, and spent hours analyzing their protagonists with fellow 20-something friends. And yet, there’s a distinct difference between a book that offers an escape and fantasy, and the historical fiction that simultaneously grounds and challenges us.
At its best, American Girl stories enabled me as a child to see myself against a consequential event in American history and then consider my own context. What type of history was I growing up in the midst of?, I began asking myself as I would pour over the local newspaper during my 10-minute homeschoolers’ recess. To what extent could I impact it?What did I need to do to pitch in for the sake of the community?
For the young girls in our families and our churches, I hope they too see themselves as part of a historic moment, as having a role to play even from an early age. The idea that God places us in certain times for a greater reason doesn’t apply only to leaders and grown-ups.
When I wonder how my parents justified the hundreds of dollars they spent on my doll and her accessories over the years, I think about how it did live up to the noble cause the American Girl company set out to do: educate girls about a world beyond what they already know.
The company’s current tagline reads, “Follow your inner star.” Instead, I’d direct girls to the shining stars of literature and history. They’d be surprised to discover how the convictions, tensions, and spirit of young heroines actually end up teaching them more about themselves than they ever could.
Morgan Lee reports for Christianity Today’s news team. She moved to Chicago from New York City last year, takes trapeze lessons, and hosts casserole parties in her backyard. Follow her @Mepaynl.