If Kit Kittredge is All-American Girl, What’s a Feminist to Do?

3 07 2008

Do you have a real-live daughter doll counting the days until she and her American Girl doll can go see typical girl movie star “Kit Kittredge” act real on the Big Screen?

To paraphrase Henry James: It’s a complex fate, being an American girl.

. . .The company’s stated goal is “to create girls of strong character,” a mission as unimpeachable as it is vague. And the American Girl cosmos can be, to an outsider, a fascinatingly contradictory place.

Its starchy traditionalism is balanced by a savvy, up-to-the-minute multiculturalism. The commodity fetishism on display in the stores coexists with a fastidious concern for historical accuracy and, in the books, a clear educational intention.

Huh?

. . . Kit is brave, smart, determined and kind, but never off-puttingly full of herself or intimidatingly superior. You would want her for a friend. You could easily imagine yourself in her place.
. . . As the son and husband of feminists, I can’t entirely suppress a tremor of unease.

Is the brand reflecting tastes, or enforcing norms of behavior? Is it teaching girls to be independent spirits or devoted shoppers?

Probably all of those things, and more. I have spent a lot of time, over the years, with Felicity and some others of her kind, and I still haven’t figured her out. . .

A typical American girl, as far as I can tell.

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21 responses

3 07 2008
COD

I think people are spending waaaayyyyy too much time worrying about the American Girl dolls.

3 07 2008
JJ

At least it’s a nice change from Harry Potter. 👿

3 07 2008
Valerie

My girls had American Girl dolls ages ago (well, they played with them a long time ago; Samantha and Molly are still on the bedroom cupboard shelves), and they liked them at the time, but went on to other things. [shrug]

What get on my nerves are the Disney “princesses.” [gag]

3 07 2008
JJ

Oh, I can’t possibly resist the opening and the chance to link something of Favorite Daughter’s, thanks Valerie! (FavD also had an American doll and all the books for all the Girls up through a certain age. She even had a few collectible Barbies.)

Why I Am a Good Person: The Disney Princess Complex”

. . .I now have to tell the truth, the real, secret reason I am a good person who does not rape or pillage. I do accept a kind of religious doctrine: I have what is known as a Disney Princess Complex. I’m not sure if this is a technical term, or if I just made it up at some point and have used it ever since.

A Disney Princess Complex, of course, is brought on by early, semi-constant exposure to classic Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. . .

Which she connects to this:
“Girl Talk”
and of course this:
“Teaching Our Girls to Dance”

. . . girls as a group are better dancers (students) than boys, like it more, but still must wait to be asked, held back by the less-willling and able boys? How many girls finally become frustrated enough to just dance alone or with each other, forget about waiting for the boys to catch up?

Seems to me girls already adept at the dance of cultural change will not wait long and will be right not to, that they’ll tend instead to make over their identity once again and never mind those trying to engineer their differences into some standardized social configuration.

Not to mention this! — “Half fish, half-black homeschool princess?”

😉

3 07 2008
Crimson Wife

From what I recall about the AG stories (it’s been quite a while, LOL!), the girls were presented as plucky heroines in the vein of Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, etc. I don’t understand what exactly makes them bad role models from a feminist standpoint. Don’t we want to be encouraging our daughters to be brave, quick-thinking, resourceful, willing to stand up for what they believe in, etc.?

I never had one myself because my parents refused to spend that much money on a doll but my best friend had the pioneer girl (Kristen?) and her younger sister had the Victorian one (Samantha?)

3 07 2008
JJ Ross

Hi CW – you hit the nail on the head I think, that yes, that’s what we want for our girls. But then OTOH, do we want them to see all that as coming through shopping, focusing on their own wants and fashion style — which is an intriguing sort of mixed-message conundrum, because the “Girls” in the stories aren’t like that at all! 🙂

4 07 2008
Nance Confer

Plucky heroines but with perfect hair. That’s how they always struck me. Gag!

Nance

4 07 2008
JJ

It’s all power of story, y’all. 🙂

Now the girls grow up and they see Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama, each similarly mixed in public storylines about who she is and what she’s wearing. Are they not BOTH real American Girls, and so why can’t the rest of us girls see them both as plucky heroines and imperfect humans as we are ourselves, a diverse pair of American Girls who even in their differences each has her own personal sense of style, and children to love, and a man in their lives who is the Big Story (lol- we could still include Hillary in this too!) and plenty of disposable income, etc. without setting them up as one good, one bad?

I think that’s the kind of feminist question I want American Girls to grow up to think about.

4 07 2008
JJ

Speaking of Harry Potter, JK Rowling is one of my favorite complicated feminists shaping power of story for today’s girls:

We do not need magic to transform our world — we have the power to IMAGINE better.

And remember this?

In a posting titled “For Girls Only, Probably…” Rowling tears into the subject of girls and weight. . .

The author said she was partly moved to write her critique because of her own daughters, ages 1 and 12, whom she doesn’t want to grow up in a thin-obsessed world.

“I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin,'” she wrote.

Which in turn made me recall a post for Colleen, who’s thinking about how to unschool herself in food health and happiness.
“Defining Fat and Happy as Family Values”

4 07 2008
Crimson Wife

So are we back to the old tired ’70’s era stereotype of a liberated woman as homely, fat, with bad hair? Can’t there be a happy medium between the appearance-obsession pushed by the mainstream culture and the pretty-bashing of a certain vocal subset of feminists?

For too long, there’s been a false opposition set up between “pretty” and “smart” when it comes to females. I don’t want my daughter to have to hear the backhanded compliment I’ve received too many times to count (almost always from men): “Wow, you’re a lot smarter than you look.” Makes me absolutely want to scream!

Of course, I want her to focus primarily on inner beauty rather than surface appearances. But I resent the idea that there’s something inherently anti-feminist about being thin or having nice hair or whatever…

4 07 2008
JJ

Um CW? Did you read what I said ? That was the whole point!
” . . .so why can’t the rest of us girls see them both as plucky heroines and imperfect humans as we are ourselves. . .”

5 07 2008
Nance Confer

CW, have you seen these dolls? Even the frontier ones look like they just came from the beauty parlor. And the ads themselves show perfect little girls playing with perfect little dolls. Really obnoxiously perfect.

Get as outraged as you want but also understand that there is a long way between homely and imperfect. And somewhere in there is real life.

And maybe that’s what you are trying to say but every time you fling the word “feminist” as if it were an insult, you miss making your point.

Nance — part of that vocal subset that gets your goat, apparently. 🙂

5 07 2008
JJ Ross

It’s not just about feminists or girls btw. Behind every issue including this one is how we think, how we see the world, and how we want kids to learn to think about the world. And we don’t all agree on that (surprise!)
😉

It’s about how we don’t all think rules and definitions and standards (including school curricula and tests) are somehow objective and immutable and so our kids must adapt to THEM instead of the other way around, adapting the Game to their changing needs. Here’s a former professional baseball player reflecting on how real-life ambiguities lurk even behind statistics, numbers, math and guys playing sports. He therefore recognizes that merit and talent and competition in (on) any field, will necessarily depend on human perceptions and our varying ability to adapt to ever-changing definitions and rules and conditions, not some immutable god-given absolute predestination.

Never mind dolls and balls, feminism or religion or politics, school or homeschool, male and female — I’m coming to think this hidden difference in the way we think is the One Big Thing that divides us on every issue large or small.

5 07 2008
Valerie

Feministic or not, I’m still gonna buy one for my son’s daughter when she’s old enough for the books. I already bought a set of the minis for my mom (who collects dolls) — Rebecca Rupp wrote about them a few years ago in one of her magazine columns.

I probably won’t buy into all the American Girl marketing (as I didn’t after I bought the dolls for my daughters), but I liked the dolls, I liked the stories, my daughters also liked both the dolls and the stories, and there are times when girls just wanna have fun. 🙂

5 07 2008
JJ

Valerie:
“. . .there are times when girls just wanna have fun. ”

And that’s the truth! [pfffffth]

7 07 2008
Kit Kittredge Items

LOL @ “I still haven’t figured her out. . .A typical American girl, as far as I can tell.”

We’ve been long time fans of the American Girl dolls and books. We can’t wait to see the movie. We’re really excited about it. I’ve heard that it’s enjoyable for the adults as well as the kids, which is exciting! And we just love Abigail Breslin. We think she’s a living doll! 😉

Alicia Smith

7 07 2008
Crimson Wife

Of course Mattel is going to advertise AG dolls using child models. That’s what Madison Avenue does! Even the Dove “real beauty” campaign used airbrushing in its ads. I don’t boycott Bon Appetit simply because my attempts at following their recipes don’t turn out as “perfect” as the glossy photos in the magazine. As long as I’m having fun in the kitchen, I really couldn’t care less how it compares to some media exec’s idea of how it “should” look.

Maybe it’s a generational thing? I think Gen X’ers like me are a lot more cynical about the media than you Baby Boomers…

7 07 2008
JJ

Good point CW– that generational thing is behind a lot of cultural differences I think, and we too often miss noticing. Part of it is fixed in the experience of a whole generation but then too, each person goes through stages as an individual and changes with the decade she finds herself in. I know a woman just my age who’s been a grandmother for many years. I had my children late in life after a career and so the moms whose KIDS are in the generation with my kids, are not in my generation of experience and attitude. It’s all pretty interesting to ponder when we find ourselves out of step with each other . . .feminists for example. The young feminists make Nance and me roll our eyes, thinking they have so much yet to learn about life but then Geraldine Ferraro and her generation sounded resentful and awfully out of touch to me too, arguing for Hillary Clinton over Obama — so clearly it’s not learning or getting older and wiser that’s the answer. 🙂

So is there some series of girls’ books that lays all this out and if so, why didn’t any of us ever read them??

8 07 2008
Nance Confer

Maybe that’s the difference. I don’t buy Bon Appetit magazine. Or Dove.

Nance

8 07 2008
Nance Confer

This does remind me of a conversation we had around here a couple of days ago.

Some car exec was moaning because he was stuck with all these SUVs and hadn’t yet switched to anything smaller and it wasn’t his fault, darn it, because they had only built what the American consumer wanted!

Bwahahahaha!

We all thought that was pretty funny since, from what we have been able to observe, the American consumer wants pretty much what the ads tell him he wants.

Nance

8 07 2008
JJ

Well yeah, the ads are power of story too, just like the tv shows and books and games and sermons and lessons and songs. And that’s a VERY good point, because the American Girl phenomenon seems more like the Monkees or ‘N Sync than like Elvis or the Beatles, commercial art? — an appealing but less than authentic corporate ad package, all cleverly calculated to please enough young girls so that sales will rock off the charts.

Of course even Elvis had shrewd, controlling management for his story to get told (sold) and the Beatles broke up over money and artistic control, didn’t they? Is it all more American Idol than we like to believe, and what does that teach girls like Dorothy Gayle when someone she trusts finally pulls back the curtain on the humbug?

Favorite Daughter and I just discovered and watched all the first season episodes of a new 1960-period cable drama about advertising AS culture, all our life stories including feminism told with wealth and success but no soul. It’s called Mad Men, short for Madison Avenue Men. Watch this opening sequence of the music and credits and if you’re old enough to have been a girl back then, you’ll be chilled by the authentic feel of its power of story, and here’s an ad pitch for the hot new family technology, the Kodak carousel. Corporate selling of our real family life back to us as packaged products.

Darrin Stevens of Bewitched was an ad man at home and work, roughly in real time to Mad Men. There are parallels aplenty, including how helpless and unfunny and merely ornamental the heroine SAHM would’ve been if she hadn’t been well, both a saint and a witch!

And some of you may be old enough to remember “thirtysomething” (I spent a lot of time with that show as a sort of guide to modern motherhood, when I left my career and became a motherless first-time mom IRL.) It was set in an updated generation but with all the same dark Mad Men themes and characters, down to the main husband-father being an ed exec for an ethically challenged firm careless of their employees’ and customers’ unprofitable real life and children.

What DO all these corporate-created Mad stories of advertising teach girls, really, at the lizard brain level? Are the American Girl stories just a primer for the beliefs, needs and wants our ad-driven corporations believe they need to want?

The AG stories particularly interest me because the Girls story themes and characters are so wholesome and un-self-conscious, not media-ad driven at all, and yet at the same time the stories and characters are all advertising all the time, some of the best-integrated I’ve ever seen.

I don’t KNOW the effect of that, how those mixed messages get written on who our girls are and will be as mothers and grandmothers, and it sounds like neither does anyone else. I’m not objecting to any of it — certainly not boycotting, where did that come from?? — just asking the question and thinking about it.

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