The American Girl Doll Magazine Made Me a Feminist
I couldn’t afford the dolls, but the magazine shaped my life
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I n the early to mid-1990s, the Jewish suburbs on the east side of Cleveland comprised a consumerist paradise. The primary landmark of my hometown, Beachwood, Ohio, is a mall which then was next door to a smaller mall and today is also across the street from an outdoor mall. Thanks to the taxes levied on an unusually large number of corporations headquartered there, our public school provided a private school-caliber education and most of my classmates lived in mini-mansions built within that decade. My family was a part of but apart from all that. My parents bought a modest house just within the town limits, and drove past the malls to get to the thrift store. For Chanukah we got seven days of socks and underwear plus one “fun present,” and we relied heavily on our library cards.
In elementary school, most of the girls in my class had American Girl dolls. Manufactured by the Pleasant Company and sold out of a catalog, these eighteen-inch vinyl dolls each represented a fully developed 8–12 year-old female character and historical time period. They cost upwards of $100, but that was just the starter price. In theory, the characters’ lives were encompassed in their accompanying chapter books, with titles like Meet Felicity: An American Girl and Molly Learns a Lesson: A School Story. The series for each character had identical titles, (cf. Meet Addy: An American Girl and Josefina Learns a Lesson: A School Story) but each girl dealt with issues specific to her epoch, like slavery, suffrage and the Great Depression. The majority of these books were authored by one woman, Valerie Tripp.
But of course, the books were not the real draw. Where the girls’ characters truly developed was in their accessories. You wouldn’t buy the pint-size Swedish immigrant Kirsten Larson without also purchasing her Pioneer School Lunch, comprised of a small wooden box containing an apple, a sausage, a hunk of cheese and bread. And what would the the wealthy Victorian Samantha Parkington wear to her Christmas dinner (immortalized in Samantha’s Surprise: A Christmas Story) but her taffeta Cranberry Party Dress? Even the Depression-era tomboy Kit Kittredge would not be complete without the whole kit and caboodle. The catalog also offered life-sized clothing options for girls who wanted to be twinsies with their dolls. My own envy never extended this far. Even at twelve, I knew tackiness when I saw it.
In spite of the company’s didactic ambitions, the most popular doll was the one with the the most luxurious accessories, Samantha Parkington. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because that was the one my grade-school best friend had. I was shocked as a child to learn that my friend’s family was so wealthy, her little sister had one too. No, not just another American Girl doll. Another Samantha Parkington. With all the fixins.
I didn’t need to ask my parents whether I could have an American Girl doll to know that the answer was no. I found work-arounds. I played with my best friend’s sister’s Samantha when she wasn’t home. I pored over the catalog and made storylines out of what I saw. Each doll had her own doll, natch, and one year for my fun Channukah present, I chose the doll’s doll my parents could afford. It was a twelve-inch ragdoll which belonged to the slave character Addy. Her name was Ida Bean, she cost $18 (l’chaim!) and I loved her.
While my parents could not have afforded an American Girl doll, let alone all the paraphernalia, in 1995 the company launched a new venture that was more amenable to both their tax bracket and my family’s consumer habits: the American Girl magazine. The bimonthly magazine cost $19.95 for one year, or the bargain price of $36 for two. There is felicitous synchronicity in the fact that price tag on the one-year subscription matched the calendar year, and what a year it was (Bill Clinton! Clueless! The Rachel cut!). And so, when I was nine years old, my copies of American Girl magazine began arriving, to be hungrily read and then stacked in between my parents’ copies of The New Yorker.
I’m 32 now, and a doctoral candidate in a literature department, so I always assumed that The New Yorker was the magazine that made the biggest impact on me. Remembering how I had enjoyed my subscription to the American Girl magazine, I started wondering about the nature of the publication, to wit, whether it was just a glorified version of the catalog. The one feature of the magazine I remembered was indeed doll-oriented. Every issue featured a fold-out card-stock paper doll modeled after one of the magazine’s pre-teen readers and the women in her family across time. With text on the back providing context, the doll itself looked like an American girl of the 1990s and one of its outfits represented her interests, a field hockey uniform, say, or an equestrian getup. Each of the other three outfits was based on the childhood clothing and culturally-specific habits of the girl’s own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
I wanted desperately to nominate myself and the women in my family for this honor, but somehow I didn’t think we had enough material. My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and questions about their parents and other relatives were more or less verboten. My mother’s side was thoroughly assimilated American Jews; by the time I was old enough to ask questions about our family history, no one was quite sure which country the Yiddish-speaking matriarch Bubbeh had been from. I couldn’t imagine learning about the girlhood of any of these women, let alone sending their childhood photographs to the American Girl art department.
In the interest of seeing how well my childhood memories correspond to the publication, I recently made my way to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe. Unfortunately, the Schlesinger librarians have not, as yet, seen fit to collect the entire run of American Girl magazine, but they do have a few illustrative examples. In fact the March/April 2001 issue has a manila index card inserted which contains the brief handwritten correspondence of two librarians: “Do we get this now?” “Let’s save this sample and see if they send any more. — Barbara.”
The earliest issue they had was from September/October 1997, the back-to-school/Halloween issue. I tried to approach my research material in a scholarly way, but my enthusiasm got the better of me. Like a New Yorker subscriber scanning for the cartoons first, I flipped hungrily to the paper doll. There she was, Stephanie Garrard, age 14, and three generations of her German female relatives. “Stephanie and her brother ice-skate as a pair,” the flipside of the doll explained. “This costume is patterned on a kind of German dress called a dirndl (DERN-del).
There was also an address for submissions with the following instructions:
BE A DOLL
Each issue of American Girl features a real American girl paper doll. If you’d like to try and be a paper doll, interview your family about the lives of your mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and other female ancestors (no aunts, please). Then send us:
1. Stories about those women as girls.
2. Photocopies of pictures of those women as girls (no originals, please!).
3. Pictures of and stories about yourself.
4. A self-addressed stamp envelope (so your materials can be returned).
NOTE: Only six girls out of hundreds each year are chosen as paper dolls. We hope you enjoy learning about your family even if you aren’t chosen.
Apart from the bewildering shade thrown at tias, I found this deeply satisfying. Reading about Stephanie’s family meant learning about the transformation of East Germany over the course of the twentieth century, even if neither fascism nor communism were ever explicitly mentioned. After all, you can only fit so much on the back of an eight-inch paper doll. The clothing was also realistically humble. In addition to Stephanie’s ice skating costume, the outfits included an early sixties schoolgirl dress and a mid-nineteenth century farmer’s frock. Then I started to wonder if the reason I didn’t play with these paper dolls was because there were too damn many nineteenth century farmers’ frocks.
Encouraged, I read through the rest of the issue. The first thing I checked was the editorial staff. I was hoping to find a name there that I, as an adult feminist, recognized, either a respected maven endowing the project with gravitas, or a rookie who would go on to great literary achievements. As it turned out, none of the individual names meant anything to me, but collectively they did; the entire staff was female.
What is most extraordinary about the magazine is the extent to which it is divorced from the consumer culture of the corporate doll line. No advertisements for the dolls, or anything else for that matter, appear in the magazine. The character of Josefina Montoya is launched in the 1997 issue I perused by means of an excerpt from the latest Valerie Tripp title: Meet Josefina. Josefina is a Mexican girl living in Santa Fe in the early nineteenth century before its incorporation into the United States. The story contains Spanish-language vocabulary and a pronunciation guide (ho-suh-FEE-nuh!), and is followed by a detailed diagram of a Mexican rancho. It is clear that that there is a doll available for purchase, as well as the requisite Christmas dress and mantilla, adobe oven and bread set and muslin niña doll; American girls know in whose world they’re living. But the magazine manages to give the impression that pushing the doll is not the reason for excerpting the book.
Indeed, like the New Yorker, every issue of American Girl magazine contains a short story. Every year, one lucky reader got the opportunity to have her fiction published in the magazine as part of an annual story contest. For the 1997 contest, readers should submit a story “no longer than eight handwritten pages or three typed pages.” The stories were to be written to a prompt, and that year it was the following: “Somewhere in your story, you must use the sentence: ‘She pedaled so hard, her legs ached.’ Sorry, no stories about characters from The American Girls Collection are allowed.” The prompt sentence contains possibilities of athleticism and determination (and, admittedly, terror and predation). The prohibition of American Girls characters both challenges the readers to rely on their own imagination, and makes it impossible that the story will function as a corporate advertisement.
The overall thrust of the magazine was empowerment through education, ambition and female friendship, and a lot of this was accomplished through reader participation. Every issue featured a “buzzword,” a vocabulary word defined in the first pages that was used somewhere in the magazine. In the back-to-school issue, that thematically appropriate word was “elucidate.” The following definition was supplied: “Elucidate is from the Latin word lucidus, meaning ‘light.’ If you explain something, you are shedding light on it.” The definition was illustrated with a cartoon of a brown girl with pigtails, holding a piece of paper and confidently declaiming something, with the caption: “Tameka stood up in front of her history class and elucidated her answer to the question.” In an article about how to form quality friendships in the new school year, advice included giving her a compliment on a skill, asking her about a hobby and discussing a class project. One possible ice-breaker was: “You have a lot of Beanie Babies! Which one is your favorite?” This was the closest thing to a cross-promotion I found.
Another feature called Heart to Heart was a reader-generated advice column. Each issue had a call for advice on a common problem, like procrastination or jealousy, and a subsequent number would include selected answers from the respondents. Every girl’s response was printed alongside her age, home state, school picture and a reproduction of her signature, so the reader could imagine not only who each girl was, but also herself as a possible contributor to the magazine. The September/October issue set out to discuss lack of enthusiasm about school. “Do you dread facing another school day? What can you do if you think school is a snore?” Most of the advice centered around positive thinking, like focusing on seeing your friends or whatever part of the day you enjoy. Some advice was more practical. Jenna Krueger, 10, Oregon, cautions, “Don’t keep looking at the clock. It only makes the time seem slower.” Some respondents had clearly drunk the American Girl (make your own from scratch!) Kool-aid. From Meghan Stanley, 11, Massachusetts: “Without school we would have no doctors, firefighters or policewomen. You would also cheat yourself out of a lot of good friendships.”
Accessibility was built into the magazine through affordability. A year’s subscription cost less than almost anything in the catalogue. (Almost. I see you Ida Bean.) And once you got inside, the magazine made no assumptions about what an American Girl magazine reader and her family could afford, nor did it promote a fantasy of luxury. The must-have accessory of the season was keychains, examples of which cost between $2 and $3.50 each. Reader recommendations for homespun jewelry included necklaces made out of the tabs from soda cans or twist tie rings. These are the kind of crafts for poor people that Amy Sedaris, for example, would love. The focus was on making something, not making something.
Besides corporate interests, the most glaring omission from these magazines is sex. And not even sex exactly, but boys. Obviously, with a target audience of 8–13 year old girls, American Girl would not treat sexual or romantic questions the way magazines for teenagers do. But the complete omission of these issues is part of the magazine’s mission. According to their website, “In a culture that tends to pressure girls to fast-forward through their childhood, American Girl tells its readers: ‘It’s great to be a girl!’” This assertion implies a comprehensive view of girlhood, one that includes activities traditionally considered feminine (playing dolls, making jewelry), masculine (contact sports, entrepreneurship), and above all, juvenile. So while the magazine might give information about your changing body, you wouldn’t learn anything about putting on make-up or talking to your crush.
After all, this is the mid- to late ‘90s, the era of Girl Power. The Spice Girls targeted the same demographic as American Girl magazine, and it’s not a coincidence that their brand of feminism was infantilizing. What could be the buy-in, for a suburban twelve-year-old in 1995, to women’s lib? The re-branding, the softening of feminism, then as now, is an imperfect solution. It declaws what should be a fearsome and to some extent I do believe absolutist doctrine. But at the same time, it’s a process of normalization, of demystifying an ideal. Beyoncé’s aestheticization of feminism may be problematic because of its capitalistic underpinnings, but if a twelve-year-old Beyoncé fan calls herself a feminist because she learned the word in “Flawless,” then I say crank it up. The values we intuitively accept as children can deepen and mature with us. My own feminist politics did not start with the classic and current books I read in institutions of higher learning. They came there with me, memories of a time when I didn’t constantly interrogate my assumptions, my performativity, myself. It was great to be a girl.
American girls have changed, and so has American Girl. Just around the time my friends and I were getting too old for (admitting to) playing with dolls, the company introduced products that were unconnected to any historical narrative. With variations in eye, hair and, most importantly, skin color and a customizable wardrobe, a girl could order a doll that looked more like her. On the one hand, this is a positive step towards diverse representation. Until the 2014 introduction of Cécile Rey, a character from New Orleans in the 1850s, the only African-American character was Addy Walker, an escaped slave. And the short-lived Ivy Ling, available from 2007 to 2014, was the only Asian-American character ever. For a long time, the customizable dolls were the best option for girls of color who wanted to see themselves represented in these top-shelf toys.
But at the same time, we can imagine a more cynical explanation. Over the years, the American Girl line has substituted representation for education, and it makes good sense to do so. Promoting diversity as a value can also mean diversifying your portfolio. Today, in addition to the Create Your Own option ($200) and the Truly Me line (contemporary dolls with no fixed name or story-line, $115), the company also promotes a Girl of the Year. These dolls ($115) are contemporary in style and story and do have accompanying books. The catch is that each one is only available for a single year, so you gotta catch ’em all. These days, in a step towards equitable representation and more inclusive goals of feminist education, there’s even a boy doll, although he’s marketed as the bandmate of a country-singing girl doll.
In 2014 the historical dolls were rebranded as the BeForever line. This group eventually came to include twenty-one different characters although some have been “archived,” that is, discontinued, along the way. Shockingly to me, Samantha was the first character to receive the archival treatment back in 2009. Along with the standard chapter books, the new BeForever dolls also come with a choose-your-own-adventure-style “Journey Book” that imagines the owner of the doll transported into that time period. The introduction of interactive reading is a natural move to appeal to this generation. After all, today’s American girls have iPads before they have menstrual pads. And not to be all “kids these days,” but the dolls’ bodies have changed too. Like Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite, the (re-)vamped American Girl dolls now have a thigh gap.
To conclude my study, and confirm my crotchety findings, I surveyed a recent issue. While the cover price for a single issue has increased from $3.95 to to $5.99, the price for a subscription has stayed the same. The January/February 2018 issue, though glossier overall, shows a lot of the same values as the original editions: art direction that evokes doodles on school notebooks, an emphasis on ambitious and entrepreneurial girls, and what we now call edutainment. I was struck by a column called This or That, a would-you-rather game in the form of a list of comparisons. This month’s theme was “The ‘90s.” With floating geometric shapes in bold shades of blue and turquoise, the design of this month’s column looks like the opening sequence of Saved by the Bell. On either side of the list is a computer-animated girl representing, on the left, “Now” and on the right, “The ‘90s.” The ‘90s girl is holding a bottle of what seems to be Crystal Pepsi, for reasons that will become clear momentarily. The reader is asked would she rather:
run a 5k for charity OR go in-line skating?
wear athletic tights and layered tees OR a short, baggy dress with combat boots?
sip a colorful smoothie OR clear root beer?
While I take some minor offense at the caricature that is this rollerblading, Gwen Stefani-styled soda-guzzler, it’s not because of my irredentist agenda; it’s because of the magazine’s historical amnesia. (And hello! The ‘90s invented colorful smoothies.) One more item might be added to the list: “read American Girl magazine OR read American Girl magazine?” But then, of course, the joke would be ruined, and the editors would have to admit that they once catered to girls who might have felt their best in “a short, baggy dress with combat boots.” Hell, today’s editors were those girls. Girls who have grown up to be ambitious, unapologetic feminists who understand the importance of representation and who have a weakness for crafting, historical fiction and magazine subscriptions.
As an adult, I buy two magazine subscriptions: my parents’ New Yorker and my own. As a grad student, I rely on my library card more heavily than ever. And as an American woman, I value education, inclusivity, accessibility and resourcefulness. My pre-teen consumption of American Girl magazine may elucidate why.