Monday, December 8, 2014

American Girl Dolls and the Lessons They Teach Us

American Girl Dolls and The Lessons They Teach

So the Huffington Post recently (and by recently, I mean in September-I was too caught up in other news things to pay attention) came out with an article explaining that the American Girl dolls taught us lessons about feminism when we were children. The link to this article will be at the bottom of this post so you can see it for yourself. Yes, I know how to do formal citations but screw that-I graduated college, I'm never doing that again unless I go to grad school. So done with citations.

Some sources have stated that the AG dolls were radical. I kind of disagree. The causes that the dolls support (suffrage for women and the end of child labor, independence for the USA, the end of slavery and segregation, etc.) are causes that today have widespread support. Very few people seriously argue that slavery should still exist. Therefore, the Addy story isn't really radical.

But they didn't really need to be. You can still learn important lessons about race and feminism from something that isn't radical. The article covered Felicity, who taught us to defy gender roles; Addy, who taught us not to let anything get in the way of our dreams; Kirsten, who taught us to try new things even if they are scary; Samantha, who taught us to stand up for what we believe in; and Molly who taught us to have grit.

So here are my list of lessons that the other dolls taught us.

Kaya: Change is Inevitable and You MUST Adapt

Kaya's Story was all about change-Lone Wolf left, her sister moved out for a good part of the year, and her mentor died. More frighteningly, her grandmother kept making statements that the way of life Kaya and the rest of her tribe was used to was coming to an end-marked by the coming of horses and smallpox. When you really sit and think about the historical implications of what the grandmother is saying, and what all the change in Kaya's life symbolizes, it is utterly heartbreaking. The world as she knows it, both in the small stage of her individual life and in the large stage of the life of native peoples in America, is going to change so drastically that it makes your head spin.

Change is  terrifying, and would be fatal for many of the people around Kaya. But Kaya learned to adapt and accept each change, coming out a stronger and better person after each shift. Yes, she has not faced the ultimate change for her people (and I don't necessarily think she will in her lifetime). But, assuming she survives smallpox, I would place my money on Kaya adapting to the changes and finding a way around them. Kaya taught girls to accept changes and to work around them if possible.

Caroline: Women Have Always Done "Male" Jobs

I read the Caroline series as an adult so I didn't take the same lessons as I might have if I was a kid. Here's what I did take from it, and I can confirm it as a history major-women have ALWAYS done traditionally male jobs.

Caroline's father is captured by the British during the War of 1812. What does her mother do? Sit down and cry, letting her family's shipyard close? No! She buckles down and does what society would certainly have considered a "male" job. Don't let society tell you what is and what is not traditional. Women have been fighting in wars for centuries. They've done everything a man has ever done-they just weren't recognized for it. Here's our chance to recognize them and give them the credit they needed. None of the American wars could have been won without the sacrifices of American women-and not necessarily just female soldiers. Women did many jobs that were essential to every war effort.

Josefina: Being Shy Does Not Mean You Won't Get Where You Want to Go (Also, Grief is Normal and Okay)

Most of the main AG characters are not shy. Sometimes, as is the case with Felicity and Elizabeth, the best friend character is shy and timid. I think this is an effort to show girls that they need to get out of their shell and be a leader.

But here's the problem with that-it takes all kinds. There will always be shy girls. And that's okay. When I was an elementary school student, I was very shy. I grew out of it, but I have friends that didn't. That doesn't mean that they aren't leading full lives and reaching their goals. They have just learned to be bold when they need to be, like Josefina was at Christmas time when she played Mary and when she asked her father to get her aunt to stay with them. Shyness is not necessarily a character flaw any more than boldness is-too much shyness or too much boldness can cause problems.

Also, grieving? That's normal. Josefina grieved for her mother and she had a lot of complicated feelings about their way of life changing because her mom was gone. And you know what? That's completely okay. People need to grieve at their own pace. Moving on from your grief is also normal and okay-it doesn't mean you didn't love them or that you don't miss them. The person you have lost would want you to move on and be happy.

My grandmother died recently and frankly, I was floored. It was right before my wedding. But I've moved on-I still love her, I wish she was here. But she wouldn't want me to grieve forever. Moving on and going forward is not a betrayal-it's a natural part of an existence which includes death and loss.

Marie-Grace and Cecile Rey: The Narrative of History is Not as Straightforward as it May Seem

For those of you who follow me on Tumblr, you know how I feel about people criticizing Addy simply because AG made a former slave character. I might redo that post and expand it for this. However, I still think MG and CeCe teach us something very important about history in general.

All of us have been taught a particular historical narrative about different things. This is our narrative for the status of black people in the USA.

"White people captured the black people from Africa and forced them to be slaves. (If you're in the South, something will be added here about how some slaves were happy to be slaves-gross.) That nice man Abe Lincoln freed the slaves (Southerns-He took away state rights though so boo). The slaves were dirt poor until MLK gave them rights. Ever since then we have all been equal and now we have an African American man as president. And they all lived happily ever after. The end."

However, that isn't really all true. Maybe there's some truth in the gist of it but it's way too simplified. There were African Americans who had drastically different experiences, like Cecile who was rich and free before the Civil War. In places like New Orleans, segregation wasn't nearly as drastic, making a friendship between a CeCe and MG possible. There are other diversions from the narrative we are taught. These narratives need to be more nuanced, especially in light of recent events.

Dolls like these challenge the popular narrative that inform our social senses of race and gender, just like the story of Caroline challenges the ideas we have about the history of women.

Rebecca: You Will Always be Pulled in Two Directions. You Must Chart Your Own Path. There May be Consequences.

Rebecca is Jewish in an America that wants to take other cultures and assimilate them into the melting pot. Her family is hanging on to their traditions against the onslaught of mainstream American Christian culture with tooth and nail. But what is wrong with a Christmas wreath? And, ultimately, what is wrong with defying the wishes of the older generation to pursue a different career path (Rebecca wants to be an actress while her family wants her to be a teacher)?

This is the story of immigrants. They come to the US and try to maintain their culture, terrified that it will be lost forever. It won't. Not in that generation. But eventually, in most cases, their children or grandchildren will assimilate somewhat into the mainstream culture. This changes the home culture and American culture at large.

That is very sad, but Rebecca is caught in the middle. She wants to pursue a goal that her traditional family does not approve of, and eventually, she decides that this is what she really wants to do. She is sympathetic to her parent's concerns, as she should be. But, she rightly realizes that it is her own life and that she must do with it as she sees fit. In the end, she confesses to her father that she does not want to be a teacher.

There will always be parents and grandparents who disagree with what the younger ones do. This could be as simple a situation as disliking the music of today to as drastic as disowning their children because they are gay. Being yourself can come at a great cost, but Rebecca shows that that is the only way to be. There is no choice-you have to be yourself or you will not make it out a happy, well adjusted person. I will not write off what your family says with the pat, "Well, if they don't accept you, who needs them?" That's too simplistic-everyone wants to be accepted by their family, and it is okay to grieve, even for family that treat you badly.

But it isn't worth denying who you are, and Rebecca, in a child friendly way, expresses this.

Kit-The Real Problems in Life will Come Out of Left Field-Also, Try to Keep Friends

I remember listening to that corny "Wear Sunscreen" graduation speech-it's kind of silly but one thing struck me. I have an anxiety issue and I am always stressed out about things that might happen. But, worrying is silly, because often, the problems that will come at you in life will be things you never expected. I'm sure that Mr. and Mrs. Kittredge never expected the Great Depression to hit. I'm sure they never thought they'd be in danger of losing their home. The best a person can do in life is try and roll with the punches. I say this, but I still keep worrying. The Kittredge family also does their best to close ranks during their troubles instead of tearing each other apart from the stress.

Also, at one point Kit and Ruthie, her best friend, argue. I would say that Ruthie is actually the problem but Kit is the one who makes it up. Why? Because it isn't about winning the fight, it's about maintaining the relationship, which is something I didn't learn until I got married. If a person is more focused on winning a fight than mending the relationship, they should do some soul searching. There are cases where this isn't true-some wounds are deep enough that no relationship is worth it. But, in the majority of cases, that is not true. Try to maintain your family bonds, friendships, and relationships in spite of your differences.

Julie Albright-Stand Up for Yourself and What You Believe In

Honestly, I feel like Julie is an updated Samantha. A lot of the message in the Samantha books was that women are capable-for example, Cornelia is a suffragist. Eventually, Samantha, despite her grandmother's disagreement with the cause, comes to agree with her. Sam always stands up for causes she believes in, including the vote.

I'm not sure what kind of person Samantha would have become if she had been a real person-Sam is a very smart girl, but I don't know what kind of opportunities she'll meet with. The sad truth is that she probably didn't go on to have her own career.

Julie's stories promote the same message-stand up for what you believe in. Additionally, she clearly shows that women are capable. Her mother gets a divorce and supports herself. Julie disobeys her coach to become the only girl on the boy's basketball team. Julie and Samantha concern themselves with very similar causes.

However, Julie has so much more potential. Not because Sam wasn't just as smart and just as strong-she was, perhaps even more so. But Sam lived during a time when there were very clear expectations for women. Julie lived in a very exciting time. Women still faced discrimination (and still do today, by the way) but the amount of change going on makes a person almost believe that Julie will be president, just like she hoped at the end of her series. She stood up for herself, for a cause she believed in through gathering signatures and participating in the political process, and she won. Who knows what other things she might win? The future is so open for her. I think it is that sense of hope, of the possibility of change for the better, that I most want to imbue my own children with when I have them. There will always be problems in society. But we as a species will always progress as long as there are people willing to work to make a change. That sense of hope is very important for any social cause.


The dolls and their stories have so much potential when it comes to teaching lessons to children-and to adults who, like me, sometimes need a remedial course in life. Not all of the lessons I went over are necessarily feminist lessons, but they are all valuable and worthwhile for anyone to learn. I won't pretend that the dolls or the company is perfect, but something doesn't need to be perfect for us to learn from it. These, along with the lessons for Samantha, Addy, Kirsten, Felicity, and Molly talked about in the HuffPo article, are what I learned from the American Girl books.


  1. I'm glad to find your blog after reading American Girl Outsider : )

    1. Thanks! Yeah I love American Girl Outsider so much :)