- American Girls:Breaking Free
As a scholar-artist, I work with conceptual photography as a means to create awareness of social and economic injustice. In my work, I employ mixed media and photography as vehicles of critique and commentary on contemporary social, cultural, and political issues. American Girls: Breaking Free is a series of photographs I created in an effort to intervene in the ways in which the American Girl Collection, as a powerful manifestation of capitalist consumer culture for young girls, normalizes and promotes oppressive constructions of gender, race, class, sexuality, and national identity.
Pleasant Company (now American Girl, LLC.), headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin, and founded by Pleasant Rowland, introduced the American Girl Collection in 1986. In 1998, Pleasant Company was sold to toy-giant Mattel for $700 million (Mattel 2009). The most well-known part of the collection is a set of eighteen-inch dolls that represent fictional 9-year-old historical characters created for girls ages 8-12. The company reports having sold over 21 million dolls since 1986. Examples of these "historical" characters priced at $100 each include: Kaya, "an adventurous Nez Perce girl growing up in 1764, before America became a country"; Felicity, "a colonial girl growing up in Williamsburg in 1774, the time of the American Revolution"; Addy, "a courageous girl determined to be free in 1864 during the Civil War"; Josefina, "a girl living in colonial New Mexico in 1824, during the opening of the Santa Fe Trail"; and Kit, "a clever, resourceful girl growing up in 1934, during America's Great Depression" (American Girl, LLC 2011).
Described by American Girl (2011) as "celebrating girls and all they can be," the collection includes dolls and a wide range of merchandise, such as a series of books about each character, clothing, accessories, and movies, easily [End Page 1] adding up to more than a thousand dollars for a complete collection of items for each doll (Hade 2000). The books, of which more than 139 million have been sold, serve as the foundation for the collection and are described as being "set during important times in America's past . . . bring[ing] history alive for millions of children. . . . Gentle life lessons throughout the stories [are said to] remind girls of such lasting values as the importance of family and friends, compassion, responsibility, and forgiveness" (American Girl, LLC 2011).
The official discourse of the American Girl brand is a discourse of girl power, of celebrating everything girls can be, educating girls, stimulating their imaginations, intellectual curiosity, and embracing their full potential (Marshall 2008; Nardone 2002; Schlosser 2006). While progressive on the surface, in actuality it is a discourse that represents what Susan Douglas (2010) describes as enlightened sexism, "feminist in its outward appearance . . . but sexist in its intent" (10). Rather than advancing a progressive feminist agenda, the hidden curriculum of the American Girl stories makes it very clear that to be a girl means to be compliant and dependent on others, to be a caretaker, to focus on the home and household work, to prime for marriage and motherhood, and to understand the significance of one's outer appearance and how one is viewed by others (Nardone 2002). To embrace the American Girl Collection is to embrace a selective and often inaccurate history where white European, heterosexual, upper-middle-class respectability is the norm. It is a world wherein realities of social inequity center the benevolence of the elite, and where those with minoritized identities serve only in tokenized and supporting roles (Hade 2000; Marshall 2008; Schlosser 2006). It is a world in which despite its focus on history, issues are always engaged at the individual level and disconnected from larger structural realities, thus implying that who you are and who you become in life is an individual matter without relation or connection to social structures (Acosta-Alzuru and Roushanzamir 2003). Despite an official discourse of centering girls in meaningful ways, to borrow from bell hooks (1997), it is a heteronormative, "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy" that takes center stage in the American Girl series. The American Girl Collection is a powerful example of the marketization of childhood, where the market...