In the Blog

Beyond Barbie

July 7th, 2008     by Allison Martell     Comments

Slate has posted a conversation between a few of its female contributors about American Girl, the doll superpower, on the occasion of their first major motion picture. American Girl dolls are, they suggest, the very opposite of Barbie. Or are they?

While some dolls represent different periods in American history, coming complete with their own historical biographies, the “just like you” dolls come in a wide variety of hair, eye and skin colours. Yes, that’s right - not all the dolls are white! Though, no surprise, their “dark” skin tone seems pretty light to me. And I don’t really know enough to judge the historical accuracy to Disney stereotype ratio of the accessories designed for Kaya, the lone First Nations character.

There was a time when I coveted these dolls, but even at age ten I felt some ambivalence. I knew that American history wasn’t my history, and the relentless patriotism wore a bit thin. But the dolls seemed to reflect my world - they played sports, learned math, and used computers.

Still, at $90 per doll, they sure are pricey. Nowadays, the American Girls are sold with even more clothes, furniture and accessories, from the web, catalogs and several theme park-esque stores. American Girl calls itself a “premiere lifestyle brand”, which sounds a bit smarmy. Is this “lifestyle” about girl power or consumption?

At least some of that commercialism is for a good cause. American Girl has come under attack for donating to Girls Incorporated, a pro-choice, queer positive youth organization.

Torie: I visited the American Girl store in Manhattan not long ago, while killing time, and was astounded by all of the stuff for sale. But I don’t know how much it bothers me. The message is so positive—learning about history, feminism, being true to yourself, reading, friendship—that I might be OK with the rampant commercialism. Noreen: I think you’re getting at a couple things we all find a little troubling—the training in consumerism (the next step was the Delia’s catalog!) and the class issues that the dolls bring up. They’re fairly pricey.

Then again, while I worked on this post, my roommate, for reasons unknown to me, watched part of Bratz: The Movie. She tells me it’s about how you can sing and dance your way into university, and how friends are sort of important, but not as important as boys. Not to mention, the Asian girl is good at science, and the Latina girl inexplicably has a mariachi band in her kitchen.

So what do we think, dearest readers? Is American Girl the lesser of many evils? What dolls, if any, do you buy for the young feminists in your life?

Tags: film reel

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