- Bookish Women:Reading Girls' Fiction: A Response to Julia Mickenberg
The American Girl has fascinated everyone from Henry James to Tom Petty, and why not? She is the repository of all kinds of historical fantasies about femininity, national identity, and racial purity. The feedback loop between real and ideal American girls has made the category of girlhood itself a marketer's paradise; girls must be beautiful and popular, kind and hardworking, but they should also be successful and smart, imaginative and powerful. Some of the most popular (and successful) American girls in the country embody all of these qualities and more: They are members of the historical line of the "American Girls" series of dolls and are eagerly sought out by "real" girls. Each of the historical dolls made by the American Girls Company represents girlhood in a different historical era and comes with a book of short stories about the doll's life. Girls aged eight and up can read about Kaya, "a daring Nez Pierce girl," or Samantha and Nellie, "compassionate girls of the Victorian era." The last time I was in Chicago, I saw a neatly cordoned line of harried parents waiting in the freezing cold outside the American Girl store to buy these dolls. All of them looked as though they were anticipating having their teeth pulled by Wanda, the Wild West dentist girl. That aside, there is a glad-hearted pluralism at the heart of the American Girls line of dolls. Still, it is hard to suppress the dark-hearted reading that the dolls and their histories are designed not to make dolls more like real girls but rather to turn real girls into American Girl dolls.
As tempting as that sort of suspicious reading can be, it is of a piece with the attitudes that have prevented all but a few scholars from taking series fiction, especially girls' series fiction, seriously. [End Page 521] Classic Birmingham School scholarship reminds us that series books—as well as the American Girl dolls and their accompanying books—are not just products (though they are certainly that, too) but texts, and because of this, open to all sorts of readings and uses. They may have been designed and marketed according to a shrewd corporate strategy, but that strategy cannot account for all—and may account for none—of the ways real girls will think about and play with the dolls or read the texts once in possession of them. That strategy also cannot account for when and why girls will abandon some texts, or for what and how texts will seem to fail them. Nor can it account for how women will remember and return to the objects of their girlhood, how they will reread those girlhood texts as they narrate their own lives.
Literary critics rely on a version of the Birmingham School's cautionary logic about how consumers use products when they think about more conventional narrative texts: There is no text that achieves a perfect fit between intent and reception, and no text that perfectly coordinates "real" and implied readers. This is an insight that is perhaps more salient when we think about texts like the collections of short stories that accompany the American Girl dolls, for such texts do not merely create the implied reader of reader response criticism in which the implied reader is a part of the text itself. The books—the material products that are not identical with the texts—are directed at an ideal demographic that is no less a part of the text than the implied reader; indeed, the reader of a book so obviously produced as an object of consumption is faced with more, rather than fewer, critical and interpretive puzzles, and more, rather than fewer, ways into the text.
Thinking about the social life of the books as well as the social life of texts marketed to girls can help us to think how girlhood is constructed and experienced by and for different kinds of girls. It might be possible to imagine a methodology that uses book history along with accounts of reading—including access to books, the conditions under which they were read...