- When Fact Is Stranger than Fiction:Hair in American Girl Stories and Dolls
Dolls have a long history as children’s companions, especially for girls. Early commercial dolls resembled adult women dressed in the latest finery. Then dollmaker Mme. Montanari introduced the “baby” doll during London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. Baby dolls remained popular until the mid-twentieth century when Barbie made the fashion doll popular again. More than simply playthings, dolls of all types have served to “prepare girls for their later roles as mothers and housewives … [or as] independent career women,” depending on their point in history (Schmidt 281). Children’s special identification with dolls means the toys often play a significant role in their development; the doll becomes a confidant and “trustworthy guide in daily life” (281).
American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland became keenly aware of the special nature of dolls when she set out to buy Christmas presents for her nieces in 1983. Faced with the limited choice of a Cabbage Patch or Barbie, Rowland decided the market needed another option. She envisioned a line of pretty, high-quality dolls that would teach children about history and “about what it meant to be a girl growing in up America” (qtd. in Morgenson 124). By 1986, Rowland had turned her vision into a reality (Orenstein 28). The company experienced quick success in its early stages and attracted a buy-out offer from Mattel in 1998. Rowland soon retired, and the company continued its evolution, which came to include dollmaking, web and catalog sales, book and magazine publishing, movie production, and retail store development. The celebrations for the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary indicated just how far American Girl had diversified over the years when “800 American Girl fans—half of them girls, half of them adult guardians—[set] sail from Miami on a [weeklong] Caribbean cruise” featuring movies, activities, and opportunities to meet and greet with popular American Girl authors (Kirch; for more see Lodge; Orenstein; “Our Company”; Rawe and Isackson). [End Page 107]
Due to its unique nature and commercial success, the American Girl collection offers an interesting case study regarding hair and its contexts in children’s literature and toys. Rowland made explicit her intentions to develop “books and dolls that would bring history alive … that would provide girls with role models, showing that the essentials of growing up haven’t changed very much, in spite of the differences in the world in the last two hundred and fifty years” (qtd. in Morgenson 124). The 2012 American Girl catalog, website, and book jackets echo this sentiment. They display the motto “Follow Your Inner Star” and explain that “American Girl celebrates a girl’s inner star—that little whisper inside that encourages her to stand tall, reach high, and dream big. We take pride and care in helping girls become their very best today, so they’ll grow up to be the women who make a difference tomorrow” (American Girl 1; Buckey book jacket). Given these goals, what traits do the American Girl dolls and books model for young readers and consumers? How are physical characteristics, like hair, described in the books? How is hair crafted for the dolls? Do the dolls and the books send the same message regarding admirable qualities to emulate? A close analysis of the narratives and toys reveals differing sets of role models, making the dolls’ relationship to hair seem strange when compared to the depictions of the characters found in the fiction.
At the core of the American Girl company is a series of historical fiction books and corresponding dolls aimed at six- to eleven-year-old girls. The books cover eleven different time periods/eras in American history from 1764 to 1974.1 Each period is shown through the eyes of a particular girl (usually nine or ten years old) over the course of a year. The narratives follow a formula divided among six books. The first is always titled Meet _____, followed by five more books all identically titled except for the substitution of the main character’s name, such as _____ Learns a Lesson and Happy Birthday ______ (Orenstein 29–30). After...