It's a girl thing

February 16,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We bought T. an American Girl doll for her birthday this year and she also received two more as generous hand-me-downs from friends whose daughters no longer played with them. Ironically, the doll we forked $95 out for as a birthday present is T.'s least favorite. The other two have quickly become her most beloved possessions. They go with us everywhere, in fact. Sometimes it's Kit Kittredge's turn to go about town; other days it's Molly McIntire's turn to see the sights. Every morning we have to factor into our schedules an extra 7 minutes so T. can buckle one of those two into the seat belt of the seat next to her. There Molly or Kit sits, patiently, keeping us company while we drive to work or run errands, until I pick T. up from school again at the end of the day. My husband's step-father was visiting this past weekend and T., of course, was chomping at the bit to give him the low-down on all things American Girl. She's not obsessed with the dolls as acquisitions or with collecting the clothes and accessories (thank goodness), but she likes the dolls and the books because she likes the stories behind the faces. She likes knowing that Kit Kittredge writes "newspapers" as a hobby, dreams about building a tree house, and that her family struggles during the Great Depression. She likes that Molly McIntire hates turnips, and misses her dad, who is overseas and serving in World War II and that she has braids in her hairs, and wears glasses. "I guess they're glorified Barbies," Scott's step-dad said to me during a two-second pause in T.'s excited run-down on all of this. "Oh no!" I said quickly, and I surprised myself by being pretty passionate in my response. "They're nothing like Barbies!" And they really aren't. First of all, Barbies are grown women, and the American Girl dolls are all on average, nine years old. They are poised on that tricky threshold straddling the innocence and ease of childhood and the responsibility- and angst-filled days of puberty and beyond. Not only are Barbies women, but their perfect, hour-glass bodies have raised many questions over the years about how we're marketing body image to our young girls. The American Girl dolls all have chunky, comfortable-looking bodies, and even if their faces all look eerily the same when you line them up together (right down to their little pearly, chipmunk-like teeth), they are different, in ways that go beyond the mere trappings of their professions (stick a white jacket and stethoscope on Barbie and she become Dr. Barbie, the world-renowned neuro-surgeon who clearly has time to work out, date Ken, AND make a lot of money). There is even a line of American Girls advice books for young girls, and one on the body and puberty that is very well-done. But I truly appreciate the American Girl dolls because of the books. Granted, we haven't moved much beyond the historical dolls, but the books are interesting, and touching, and well-written. Even the Lanie book--introducing doll-of-the-year Lanie, a smart, scientifically-minded girl who loves to write in her journal and who enjoys learning about protecting the environment, kept T. and I interested every night until the book was done. I'm liking this American Girl thing, I realized. I'm okay with it. But, I wondered, what did the rest of the world think about these dolls? I spent some time searching the internet and was surprised, and a little angered, I think, to come up with several raging commentaries on the American Girl dolls. American Girl dolls are drivel! American Girl Dolls are corrupting the minds of our young girls! American Girl dolls are an excuse NOT to have girls in the first place! American Girl dolls are "designed to sneak into girls' minds like a corporate tribble, compelling them to plead for ever-larger, increasingly expensive products." Wow. What I realized, while I read through the pieces and the comments, was that there is just so much ugly vitriol out there in general about products marketed for girls. No one stops to question the Star Wars Lego industry, and the fact that those products might be sneaking into boys' minds like corporate tribble, compelling them to plead for the $449 Death Star. Or that some parents somewhere might actually cough up $139 for a Transformer; no one seems to worry too much about all those tiny weapons that come with so many of the toys marketed to boys these days. And those souped up Nerf guns that glorify snipers? What's with those? There is so much out there that's bad in the world, so many decisions parents have to make on a daily (or hourly) basis about what they should or shouldn't let their kids watch, or play with, or read, or eat, or look at. It seems to me that a product line that captures a child's imagination, teaches history in a sensitive and well-crafted way, and encourages the good values of family, friendship, leadership, honesty and loyalty can't be all bad. There are many things that I'm afraid of as a mom, but promoting character, friendship, smarts, and an I-can-do-anything attitude? I'm certainly not afraid of that.