These days, our daughters read the American Girl books, and due to the generosity of friends with older girls, they even sport a small colony of well used dolls. As such, I read Alexandra Petri's riff on the de-emphasizing of the historical side of the American Girl line (dolls and books) and the increasing emphasis on the Girls Just Like You, with some interest.
The Atlantic points out the dreadful change that the once-famed catalog of historic yet personable dolls is slowly undergoing. Forget Samantha the Victorian girl, Molly the plucky World War II doll with the Victory Garden, or original Colonial girl Felicity. Felicity’s been retired to the Upstate Doll Farm. So’s Samantha. Kirsten the pioneer? Gone. Instead, get a Girl of the Year, or a My American Girl who Looks Just Like You.
Full disclosure: I never had an American Girl doll but I got the catalog every month, read it cover-to-cover, and subscribed to the magazine. My parents offered to buy me Kirsten, the one who looked like me, but she had, in my 9-year-old opinion, a boring story. Her adventure was being part of a pioneer family. Trek across the country with your Scandinavian family in a slow, bulky vehicle without air-conditioning? I did that every summer.
But compared to what’s on the market now, Kirsten was adventure itself. At one point in her story, someone dies of cholera. She has to tangle with winter and rough conditions and being forced to dress up as Santa Lucia.
Here is the story of McKenna, the 2012 American Girl of the year: ”Ten-year-old McKenna Brooks has always excelled in school and in gymnastics. So when her grades suddenly fall, McKenna begins to doubt herself. With the help of a new friend, McKenna learns to focus on her strengths to overcome her challenges, one step at a time. But just as she begins to shine in school, McKenna is sidelined with a gymnastics injury. Will McKenna be able to springboard to success again?”
In “Meet Addy,” “Addy and her mother make a terrifying journey north, holding fast to their dream that the war will end and one day, their family will be together again in freedom.” That’s the Civil War, mind you. In “Meet Molly,” “World War Two turns Molly’s family upside down. While her father is away, war threatens to break out on the McIntires’ home front, too.”
Contrast what Saige is facing: ”Saige Copeland loves spending time on her grandma’s ranch, riding horses and painting. Her school made the tough choice to cut art classes, which means she’s lost her favorite subject. So when her grandma decides to organize a “save the arts” fundraiser and parade to benefit the school, Saige jumps on board. She begins training her grandma’s beautiful horse, Picasso, for his appearance in the parade. Then her grandma is injured in an accident, and she wonders what she can do to help. Can she ride Picasso in the parade and make her grandma proud? Can Saige still raise money to protect the arts at school?”
OH GOD! NOT THE ARTS BUDGET! THAT’S LIKE WORLD WAR II AND SLAVERY ALL ROLLED INTO ONE!
Now, Petri is arguably shading things a bit to fit her point. Normally the users of AmericanGirl.com around here are the young ladies, but having just taken a look around I can confirm that the contemporary dolls and the marketing for them do seem to get top billing. You have to click a couple layers into the site to get to the "historical characters". However, although some of the classic dolls have been retired, their books are still available in the store, and there are actually more historical character dolls than there were 20+ years ago. Our second eldest has recently been working through the adventures of Celine & Marie-Grace, a cross-racial pair of friends in ante-bellum Louisiana. And the other day I found Rebecca (an urban Jewish girl living in 1914) lying around on leave from the library. (It seems a rule of the American Girl books that the characters are only religious if they are ethnic. You won't hear about religion from Molly or Samantha.)
So while under Mattel the American Girl brand has put a lot of emphasis on some rather vacuous contemporary characters, it doesn't seem like they've dropped the historical angle so much as added a great deal more material.
However, what did strike me in Petri's piece is the importance that learning about people in other places and times plays in growing up with any kind of perspective. The Saige story described is not going to broaden anyone's horizon's. If anything, it simply increases our all too ready tendency to consider every little struggle as titanic.