One of my eventual assignments in my kidlit class is to read an American Girl book and bring it into class to discuss. I was already excited about this assignment, because I was obsessed with the American Girl dolls when I was a little girl. I’ve discussed the American Girl concept with my professor in brief in the past, and I do think her point that they encourage materialism is salient; however, I think they also provide a way for children to interact with the past and act out the things they’ve learned in the books. I’m fascinated by history and historical fiction for numerous reasons, but the opportunity to read about girls in different historical contexts is one of the major influences on my literary tastes.
My preliminary plan is to read an American Girl book from after I “grew out of” the franchise. (I, like many people who grew up with Pleasant Company in her metaphorical backyard–occasionally, my parents would drive us out to look at the outside of the factory where the dolls were made, then out at the very edge of the city and now surrounded by suburban sprawl–am not entirely pleased with where Mattel has taken things on the whole.) Either Rebecca or Cécile, probably, as those are the two newer characters I’m most interested in investigating.
Our eventual class discussion of the American Girl franchise should be made all the more interesting by the recent rebranding of the American Girl historical characters (Samantha, Addy, etc.) into the Beforever line. The short version is that the dolls’ six books have been condensed into two longer books–same text, new omnibus format–with a third choose-your-own-adventure-style storybook as well. The dolls’ clothing options have also changed, and the book covers have been updated to reflect those changes.
A good overview of the frustrating aspects of this update can be found in this blog post. The points that I think are most salient are these:
- This change to the historical line of American Girls retires four dolls, two of which are characters of colour. With the removal of Ivy Ling and Cécile Rey, the line now includes only one African-American character and no Asian-American characters. And Addy, the remaining African-American doll, has a storyline focused on slavery; Cécile’s storyline provided an opportunity to learn about a historical African-American child who was not a slave.
- The clothing changes aren’t as historically accurate or, in some cases, as detailed as the characters’ previous outfits. Many of them look like they came out of a modern child’s closet. This movement away from historicity is disappointing to me. While I know that there have been historical inaccuracies within the franchise before (here’s a great review of the Kaya series that points out inaccuracies, another of the dolls that’s after my time), I don’t think that’s an excuse for replacing good outfits with blatantly modern-looking clothing.
- The entire line of visual changes has made things significantly more pink than they were before. Many of the books feature the colour in their covers; many of the characters’ outfits feature the colour, even if other colours would be more likely. The most egregious example is Depression-era Kit in a birthday dress that features bright pink despite the fact that she hates the colour in the books. However, I think it’s a disappointing change all around. The emphasis of pink-as-feminine is not only ahistorical in places (here’s an article on the history of pink-as-feminine to give you an idea), it means yet another line of products for girls doused in pink for no better reason than “otherwise, how would you know they were for girls?” Say what you will about American Girl as a line of toys, but earlier iterations featured significantly more varied colours and types of clothing for the dolls to wear.
Roommate (who absolutely abhors American Girl for a variety of reasons) said that it sounds like American Girl is trying to compete with the Disney Princess line. I agree, and it makes me sad. I think that American Girl should, ideally, be about learning about the past, finding differences and similarities in the lives of girls who have lived before oneself, and sparking an appreciation for history in children.
Personally, I eat-sleep-breathe history and historical fiction, some days. I’m in the process of planning both midgrade and young adult historical novels. I know that being able to read and play out historical stories as a child helped kindle my love of history, especially American cultural history, and I want other young girls to be able to find that same inspiration in their reading and playing.