Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Deradicalizing American Girls

This is a fascinating account of how the American Girl line of toys and books has lost its initial focus on learning, history, and social struggle since being bought out by Mattel.  The original American Girl dolls and books were an expensive, must-have toy for discerning parents of young girls in the 1990s, as they are today.  (In fact, another male friend and I that enjoyed the books wrote a letter to the company complaining that they didn't market anything to young boys like us).  Unlike the newer dolls though, early dolls were each well-developed with a back story steeped in the historical context and struggles of each of their eras.  They talked about colonization of the frontier (and forcible displacement of native people), immigration, the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age, slavery, the Mexican roots of the American West.  In this way they served as a stealth way to slip progressive social messages into the households of high-income consumer kids and parents.

According to the article though, the line of dolls and stories has increasingly come to focus on bourgeois present-day white girls, thus losing the aspect of representation of history, minorities, and struggle that was inherent to its initial mission.  And they come out with a new, thinly-developed doll and story every year now instead of every few years.  This all when they're not focusing on selling customized dolls with no backstory that girls and parents can select to look exactly like them.  It's funny, because recently in a doctor's office or something I chanced across an American Girl catalog, and I was indeed perplexed to find a lot of dolls and accessories that weren't at all related to the American Girl dolls I'd grown up with (these latter were relegated to the back of the catalog).  Now I understand better what's going on.

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