Use Your Gray Matter: Were the (original) American Girls Slatebreakers?

Screen-shot-2013-03-24-at-1.50.41-PMIt must be nice to retire at the young age of 27. In turns out that in doll years, however, 27 is ancient. I recently learned that Molly McIntire, one of the fictional girls of the American Girl series and accompanying line of dolls and accessories, is being retired. That means that Molly and her whole line of merchandise will no longer be available.

I’m not shocked that Molly has been retired. Since Mattel purchased Pleasant Company (the makers of the American Girls) back in 1998, several of the historical girls have been retired. But Molly was the last of the originals. The first three American Girls in print and in doll form were Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly. Now all of them have faded into the archives.

Upon hearing the news of the demise of all three original American Girls, I was struck with a sudden case of nostalgia. And then I had to check myself. A woman I highly respect once told me that nostalgia is often tainted with bias and misremembered moments, and thus can be a dangerous thing. I decided that I had to examine my own nostalgia and investigate whether or not these historical American Girls were really as amazing as I remembered them to be. Sure, I adored the books as a little girl, but did they truly set an example of independent girlhood?

Before I talk about my experience re-reading some of the American Girl books, I want to be completely transparent about some parameters I set for myself as I embarked upon this re-reading experience:

  1. I would look at only the first books in the six book series (the “Meet ____” books), and only from the first three fictional girls that were introduced: Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly.
  2. I would do my darnedest to try to examine the books separate from the dolls and accessories. This was tough, because my memories of Kirsten are tied up with the doll and the scenarios I imagined while playing with her. I recognize that the dolls and their accompanying lines of historical props and clothing were (and still are) expensive.  Owning an American Girl doll was definitely a 1990s marker of a certain socioeconomic status. And even though I was fortunate to own an American Girl doll, I originally read all of the books at my school library. So did many of the girls in my class, even if they didn’t have one of the dolls. I was curious about how the girls were presented solely in the book series. Did they exhibit Slatebreaking traits? What may be problematic about the books now that I’m reading them through a different lens? Can the books stand independent from the dolls as stories about interesting fictional girls?

Ok, folks. Here’s what I discovered.

Meet Kirsten: I am heartbroken. This was a seriously disappointing re-reading experience. Kirsten isn’t cool at all in this book. The book is focused on depicting her family’s experience moving to the United States from their home country of Sweden. The book does lay the foundation for the rest of the series, when Kirsten has to navigate cultural differences in her new home of Minnesota. But Kirsten is unfortunately rather passive in this story. She mostly observes her surroundings and misses her doll (which had to be left behind in a trunk). Even when her best friend dies of cholera, Kirsten is numb. She has a quieter personality than the other original American Girls. Maybe that’s why I liked her so much when I was younger. I was a quiet observer type.  Perhaps that’s what I saw and admired in Kirsten.

Meet Samantha: Samantha has the spunk and independence that I remember loving about the American Girls. The rigid expectations of Victorian womanhood rub her the wrong way. There’s also an adult character, Cornelia, who is introduced in this book as a catalyst for future Slatebreaking plot developments. Cornelia is a young women “with newfangled ideas” about women’s roles in society. Meet Samantha positions Samantha as a spirited Slatebreaker, much like I remembered.

What emerged during my re-read of this book was a definite slant of white privilege. Although she is an orphan, Samantha lives in an extremely wealthy household and is well cared for. When she meets a girl who has to work for a living and doesn’t go to school, she is utterly shocked. SHOCKED. Samantha takes it upon herself to become this girl’s savior. She does the same with one of her grandmother’s employees, who is a woman of color. When Samantha learns that people of color live in very different neighborhoods than where she lives, she is flabbergasted. These experiences ignite the urge to be an activist in Samantha…yet the book never addresses that she has the opportunity to do this because of her wealth and privilege.

Meet Molly: Molly’s first book focuses on her family dynamics. We meet the entire McIntire family and witness some highly inventive sibling pranks. Molly isn’t as much of a social activist as Samantha, but she’s definitely a schemer. She daydreams about how to convince her friends to dress as ugly stepsisters so that she can be Cinderella. She also invents an elaborate revenge prank to play on her brother. Molly’s Slatebreaking potential is evident, but not yet fully explored in her first story.

The great thing about the American Girl books is that the six book series formula allowed room for the character to grow and change. The “Saves the Day” and “Changes for _______” books highlighted how each girl could be self-reliant and effective at problem solving. I confess that I haven’t read any of the books connected to the Girl of the Year dolls or any of the newer historical characters. I would hope that there is still an effort made to showcase traits of intelligence and critical thinking through the fictional narratives of each character.

Nostalgia can be a dangerous trap. Obviously, girls growing up now will have a different childhood experience than I did. That’s only natural. But I do not think that the American Girls will provide the same Slatebreaking historical fiction reading experience that they did when I was a kid, especially now that the original historical girls have been retired. Thankfully, there are plenty of other options for Slatebreaking historical fiction available in bookstores and libraries, and many of those options are free of the material trappings that are entwined with the American Girl consumer experience.

I welcome you to chime in. Do you have memories of reading the American Girl books as a child? What were your impressions? Are you familiar with the American Girl books that are offered now? Is there still (or was there ever) a Slatebreaking tradition represented by the American Girl brand?

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One Response to Use Your Gray Matter: Were the (original) American Girls Slatebreakers?

  1. Gillian says:

    I’m so glad you did this analysis–I was really into the American Girls as a kid, and now I want to reread the books! I have lots of thoughts, but to stick to a few…I know that Felicity wasn’t one of the original characters, but her books were my favorites, and I remember that, like Samantha, she challenged the gender roles of her time a lot. On the other hand, one of the books (the Christmas one?) centered around her getting a new dress for a ball, and as I remember the overall message of the book was that there were more important things than pretty dresses, but that it was OK for her to want that stuff too. Personally, it’s really important to me for girls to have books that tell them that it’s OK to like both “feminine” and “masculine” activities, but I’d have to reread the book to remember exactly how that plotline was presented. Also, I grew up to be an historian, and I’ve since had conversations with male colleagues who’ve said that they wished they had something like the AG books when they were kids, which made me realize that I did learn a lot about history from those books. I’m sure there’s stuff that’s problematic about the way the authors interpreted history, but they were still important in encouraging my interest.

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