Childhood, Selfhood, and the American Girl

This is a cross post from Adios Barbie By Allison Epstein, Intern 2013

medium_6936296661It’s amazing how much of an impact our favorite childhood toys can have on us years and decades later. If I asked you what toy you treasured back in the day, what would you say? Maybe we have some Lego people out there, or Easy Bake Oven folks, or for children of the nineties like me, Doodle Bears. (Seriously, do you remember Doodle Bears? Best things ever.) As for me, I loved American Girl dolls.

Oftentimes, we’ll look back on the things we loved in the past with a more critical eye, and our childhood talismans start to lose their magic a little. Not so with these dolls, though. Even as an adult, I’ll still stand up with pride for them.

You know what the typical doll looks like: perfect, plastic, blonde, white, unrealistically huge breasts, anatomically impossible. Sometimes missing crucial body parts, like noses. We’ve all been raised around these images. The only diversity we see in girl’s toys is the color of their clothes: do you want the purple dress or the pink one? Well, with a choice like that…

But that’s where the American Girls take dolls to a whole new level.

In 2006, the wonderful folks at American Girl launched the line of My American Girl dolls, which is exactly what it sounds like. Children can customize their dolls so that they look like them. The dolls come in three different skin tones, three different hair colors, three different eye colors, three different hair textures, and optional bangs and freckles. As a child, Doll F1209 would have been me. Doll F1231 would have been my best friend. Not the catchiest of names, but I guess we would have come up with our own.

Beyond recognizing a variety in skin tones and racial/ethnic backgrounds, American Girl also plunges headlong into a domain that I have yet to see another doll anywhere provide: physical disability. These dolls can come equipped with their own wheelchairseeing-eye dog, and crutches, among the plethora of other items.

To be fair, Barbie did attempt to make a doll with physical disabilities, cloyingly named “Share A Smile Becky,” in 1997. The doll, in a darkly ironic demonstration of art imitating life, was unable to fit through the door or into the elevator of the Barbie Dream House with her wheelchair, and was shortly after discontinued.

These examples, among others, sum up why I’m so committed to American Girl as a doll-ternative: they look like children.

The target age group for most Barbie dolls is ages three to six. The Bikini Basics Barbie line, a full lineup of skimpy bikinis over anatomically impossible legs and disproportionate breasts, is marketed toward children ages three and up. Name me a three-to-six-year-old who wears a DD bra.

Now, I’m no mathematician. But I did take a basic algebra class in the 7th grade, and I know how to work a scale factor. Assuming that the average 8-year-old is about 50 inches tall and American Girls are 18 inches, it’s pretty easy to work out what the doll’s proportions would be if she were human-sized. How’s this sound to you: 29-inch chest, 29-inch waist (no breasts to speak of, considering that she’s eight), 31-inch hips. All of those measurements are only slightly larger than they would be for your middle-of-the-road 8-year-old. (I’m using this children’s clothing pattern for comparison, because I’m by no means an expert on childhood body measurements.)

Barbie’s life-size proportions, on the other hand, come out as something from a science fiction movie. At 5 foot 9, Barbie would have a 39-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, 22-inch hips, and would wear a size three shoe. The day you see a real-life woman who looks like this, please let me know.

In case you’re more a visual learner than a numbers person, take a look at a lineup of Barbie dolls side-by-side with four American Girl dolls. Imagine you have an eight-year-old daughter. Maybe you do. Which of the two would you want her emulating as a role model?

The original American Girl series of dolls had plenty to say on the note of positive role models. Dolls came complete with a set of six books outlining their historical backstory, from one’s daring escape from slavery to another’s confrontation with the child labor industry in the 1900s. These were girls who overcame seemingly impossible obstacles, and who helped young girls believe that they, too, could make a difference.

I grew up with this generation of dolls, which has been retroactively named the Historic Series, and so I understand the complaint of some, including Amy Schiller at The Atlantic, that the stories accompanying second-generation dolls are watered-down and sanitized. The dolls are no longer crossing the Atlantic as pioneers or planting victory gardens in World War II, they’re “having a bake sale to help save the arts program in a local school” or “persuading a neighbor to stop using pesticides… for the organic food movement.” I’ll admit, the girl-power-against-impossible-obstacles theme appears to be fading slightly. On a side note, three guesses what toy conglomerate took over American Girl when the Historic Series was replaced by gardening and bake sales? If you answered “Mattel,” you’re both a cynic and right on.

Still, there’s something to be said for the message that even the “innocuous” backstories of the newer dolls cannot overshadow. I’d much rather show my daughters, when I have daughters, that there are dolls with their ethnic background, skin and hair color, physical disabilities, and something a few steps closer to their body type.

I don’t know if we are what we play with, but I know it can’t hurt to play with what we are.

Psychology is famous for its studies on the effects of toys on young children. The most well-known experiment, and one that recently surged back into the public consciousness in a video from Upworthy was that by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1939. Both black and white dolls were shown to black and white children, asking them which doll was pretty, which doll was mean, which doll was bad, etc. Overwhelmingly, both black and white children labeled the black doll as “bad” and the white doll as “pretty.” Children are not stupid. If they see that dolls aren’t made to look like certain kinds of people, they’re going to wonder why. And they’ll pick up on our internalized prejudice to find the answers.

We can’t say that dolls are “just toys.” They represent the archetype of what society believes we should look like. They teach children from an early age what is acceptable and what is not. If there’s not a doll that looks like me anywhere in the world, children will think, there must be a reason. There must be something wrong with me.

What American Girl is suggesting is just the opposite: No, there is nothing wrong with you. Look, there’s a doll with a face that looks like yours, with a body that moves on four wheels like yours does, with arms and legs and a torso that look like people your age. Look. There are others like you out there.

You are okay.

No, it’s absolutely not perfect. There are obviously more than three skin tones in the world, the “average eight-year-old” is a fallacy that rules out countless body shapes and sizes, and this doesn’t address the issue of boys who want to play with dolls and have nothing but G.I. Joe to turn to. But when you look at the alternatives we’re given, I’ll stake my money on American Girl every day of the week.

photo credit: keristars via photopin cc

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