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Of Dreams and Dolls: American Girls and the Spirit of Exploration

by Katy Kelleher

The first American Girl Dolls were released in 1986 by Pleasant Company, which had yet to be acquired by mega-manufacturer Mattel. I didn’t get my first doll until 1995, when I was eight years old. Though I never collected dolls like some of my peers, I did read every single one of the books hungrily, voraciously. They sat on my shelves next to classics like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, My Side of the Mountain, and Little House on the Prairie. The stories of Kirsten, Molly, Felicity, Samantha, and Addy quickly became a central part of my ever-growing library.

Though I didn’t see it at the time, they fit a theme I had been building on for years. They were about the lives and times of brave, resourceful, and invariably outdoorsy children. Children, I always hoped, who were somewhat like me.

For me, the American Girl Doll was always tied to some vision of the great outdoors, some untamed wildernes waiting for the right child to come along and realize it’s full playtime potential. My doll, Kirsten, was a pioneer. Growing up in Minnesota in 1854, Kirsten was living on the edge of Western expansion, a fact that made a great impression on me. Though my parents certainly chose Kirsten for our slight resemblance (blonde hair and blue eyes), I identified with her because of her tomboy nature and her woodsy life.

In the first book, Meet Kirsten, I journeyed with my little doll across the Atlantic and to the shores of America. In subsequent novels, we learned about Kirsten’s exploration of the American landscape, her willingness to befriend Singing Bird, a Sioux Indian girl living outside the Larson’s village, and her insistence on joining the boys in hunting and fishing expeditions. For a girl with two brothers and a propensity for running wild, Kirsten’s life was something to be envied, and her bravery gave me something to idolize. Her stories weren’t just entertainment; they provided the inspiration that shaped my summers. Like Kirsten, I became an explorer of the American wilderness, though unlike Kirsten, I was limited to the shores of Schroon Lake and the Adirondack woods.

As I grew older, this spirit of adventure stayed with me, shaping my relationship with the great outdoors. I became a camper, a hiker, and briefly, an avid rock-climber. I stopped pretending and started doing, and as I made the transition, the entire North East became my adult playground, from the woods of Western Massachusetts to the mountains of upstate New York and the green tips of Vermont. I forgot about Kirsten and moved on, but the desire to be, for lack of a better description, the quintessential American Girl stayed with me through it all. I was only reminded of the plastic doll’s real significance when, in 2009, Mattel announced that Kirsten was set to go the way of the dodo bird. That’s right: they decided to discontinue my favorite doll, turning their focus instead to newer models from slightly more recent (and glamorous) times.

Fortunately, Kirsten wasn’t the only doll with explorer tendencies. My younger sister was the proud owner of a Felicity doll, who, according to her books, lived in Colonial Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War. Like Kirsten, Felicity’s story had her perched on the edge of the civilized world, teetering on the brink of Western expansion. We were too young at the time to understand the nuances of this phrase, we only saw the excitement at the ever-newness of a land unsettled and undiscovered.

In these books, the wilderness wasn’t truly scary. Indians were slightly misunderstood friends, never fearsome foes. Our grasp of American history was rudimentary at best; through the rose-colored glasses most children are suited with, we saw the past as a large and mainly inviting entity, just out of reach but never truly out of sight.

However, it wasn’t just children who felt the appeal of the American Girls. Though not everyone would admit it so explicitly, many of my friends’ mothers became deeply involved in the collecting and dressing of the pretty and appropriately child-like dolls. Pouring over the catalogue was often a group activity, where we would all look eagerly at the little dresses and hats, charmed by the miniature size and anachronistic flavor of it all.

After several years of catering to our whims (I’ll admit, we did not always take care of the velvet dresses and little leather booties as we should have), my mother ended up with a doll of her very own: Josefina. She was a gorgeous doll, with darker skin but the exact same faces as our own little white girls. She came with an outfit fit for an Indian princess, complete with fringed jacket and beads for her hair.

Lest you get the wrong idea: my mother didn’t buy this doll for herself. Josefina was a gift, given to her one Christmas by her mother-in-law. Though it may sound strange to some, this was actually a very carefully chosen and lovely present. Unlike our dolls, which were playthings first and foremost, Josefina was intended as a sort of souvenir, a memorial to a life my mother had loved.

In 1989, my father had taken a job in New Mexico, dragging his wife and two young children from their home in the North East all the way to the American Southwest. At first, my mom was resistant, scared of the transition and the huge distance it placed between her and her family. But she quickly came to love Los Alamos. She loved the desert and the food and the easy warmth of our neighbors. She loved hiking in the mesas and roasting poblano peppers in the backyard. Though she had been born and raised in New York, there was something about this part of the country that spoke to her. This was where she was happiest. Five years later, my dad took a job in Massachusetts, and they were forced to move again.

When my grandmother gave her that doll, she was handing her a particularly poignant keepsake from the place she had been forced to leave, a place she had never really gotten over. In our New England home, she had decorated the shelves with pottery she bought on the reservations and covered the walls with pictures of the adobe churches. Though she couldn’t move New Mexico to us, she could surround herself with daily reminders of the place she so adored and though Josefina was made of plastic, cloth, and stuffing, not earth or cornhusks, like her other pieces of memorabilia, she became yet another lifeline to the past.

To some, the dolls seem overpriced and overhyped, indulgent in the extreme. Perhaps this is true, there certainly was a disturbing amount of unrealized irony in Mattel’s decision to release a $95 “homeless doll,” but for many of us they were more than just toys. For children, they were our companions who offered a gateway into a world that was not our own, yet seemed familiar and highly desirable. For parents, they were a welcome change from Barbies and Bratz. The educational spin was easily digestible when coupled with historically-accurate costumes, accessories, and even small-sized furniture. In my older, more cynical eyes, I can see how Pleasant Company, and later Mattel, manipulated the market, making these expensive little things the ultimate toy.

However, if I squint hard enough, I can also see what I once saw in Kirsten, what my mother saw in Josefina, and what girls still probably see in their dolls. It’s a picture of the past shaped by books and objects, a miniature world where children are brave and resourceful; even when faced with tough times and strange new worlds, they use their wits and compassion and always end up on top. In short, it’s the American Dream, perfectly tailored to fit the mind of a modern, post-feminist era girl.