This past summer, my amazing little niece stayed with us for a few days.
As per usual, we stocked up on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, planned trips to the beach and the stable, pulled out DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, VHS tapes) that my own now-teenage daughter had adored when she was six. As per usual, I, as one of her two favorite aunties (admittedly, she has only two aunties, favorites or not), got a full-body, wrap-around hug when she arrived.
And, as per usual, my niece disengaged in a flash and bolted up to the third floor of our house. There, under the eaves, is a once magic place, neglected now except for these biannual visits. This is where my daughter played when she was my niece's age.
This is where the American Girl Dolls live.
Let me back up. For the five years between our wedding and the birth of our first and only child, my husband and I lived in a small Colonial cottage. It was built in 1790 and, even so, wasn't one of the older homes in the neighborhood. It
was small, but impeccably outfitted, with a trim garden in front and a brick patio in back. We loved it. And, it was plenty big for the two of us, then for the two of us and the miniature dachshund, then for the two of us and the miniature dachshund and the newborn. Until, said newborn started growing and accumulating stuff. It was time to look at real estate.
Predisposed to finding another antique in our town's historic district, we went through the available inventory quickly. We were okay with the crooked floors, but not the lack of closets. We knew we might have to update a kitchen, but we had neither the money nor the wherewithal to tackle an entire top-to-bottom renovation. Our options were limited.
Although it may be my imagination, I think the broker who showed us the house we eventually bought, must have given herself a little "high five" when we arrived. One of us was carrying a one-year-old. Pay dirt! You see, besides most of the items on our house-hunting hit list (wide pine floors, working fireplaces, sufficient bedrooms, even closets), this house had a bonus. (Not a "bonus room" like you'd find in a McMansion, but an honest to goodness, more than we asked for lagniappe.) The previous owners had installed a little playroom on the top floor, complete with its own "front door" and windows into the rest of the house. Inside this cozy retreat, there were hand-painted murals of Winnie the Pooh, Babar and Thomas the Tank Engine. The playroom was conveniently situated between what would become my home office and my husband's.
It was perfect. We bought the house.
Originally a place for Fisher-Price pull-toys, Duplo building sets and stuffed animals, the room morphed over the years into a dormitory for a number of American Girl Dolls. My daughter started with a contemporary "My American Girl" with wavy medium brown hair. Soon, though, she had a number of the historic characters, along with their wardrobes and accessories, pets and furniture. And, perhaps, most importantly, there were the books. Each American Girl had her own series of novels so that my daughter (along with tens of thousands of other girls) could learn about turn of the century New York with Samantha; revolutionary Williamsburg with Felicity; the American Southwest with Josephina; the freedom trail with Addy; and the depression and World War II with, respectively, Kit and Molly.
For this reason, I was a staunch defender of American Girl Dolls. Despite the practically Machiavellian (or should I say, "Disneyesque?") brilliance of the company's marketing, despite the countless, costly trips to Fifth Avenue's American Girl Place, I argued that any toys that encouraged girls to read were okay by me. A few years ago, I compared notes with my best friend from fourth grade (now a PhD and the head of the honors program at a prestigious Jesuit university). We were both insatiable readers and avid doll collectors, who would have reveled in the American Girl experience had we been born two decades later. As adults, we made sure our own daughters had that chance.
I did worry when Pleasant & Company (the original mail-order business, founded nearly 30 years ago by Rowland Pleasant) was purchased by Mattel. But, despite rapid expansion and merchandising, it seemed as if the original concept was still there. Quite recently, in fact, a new American Girl was introduced, one Rebecca Rubin, an Eastern European immigrant residing in Manhattan's lower Eastside. As a native New Yorker, I was thrilled to see this addition.
It appeared that my fears of the Barbie-fication of American Girl were unfounded. Until now.
My sister-in-law (yes, the mom of my aforementioned niece) just sent me an article from The Washington Post, linking to another from The Atlantic. Both describe the disheartening direction American Girl is now taking. Apparently, the historical characters are being "retired" (some already have been) and future dolls will have a decidedly more contemporary — and, no doubt, homogonous — flair. There will still be companion books, but while my daughter could admire Samantha's efforts to end sweatshops and child labor or be insipired by Addy's courage when she and her mother dared escape North, future girls will have to settle for anxiety-provoking gymnastics competitions and the agony of disappointing report cards.
It was true when I was in school and it's true today. Girls read history books that are full of men. They go on field trips to look at statues of heroes, rather than heroines. They study wars and political science and dynasties, kings and elected officials, the bulk of whom are men, men, men.
What a shame. The American Girl Dolls gave our daughters a chance to examine all of these things through female eyes. They could imagine how their lives would have been in these varied and important chapters of our country's story.
And understand that in America, women — and even girls — made history too.
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