|Wait, people think American Girl was radical back in the day? Surely you jest, Uncle Gard!|
That's nice. But now is the part of the evening where I sit you down, unsheathe the truth claws, and pop everyone's nostalgia bubble.
AG was never, ever, ever as radical or pushing against society as this article (and some follow up articles) seem to want to make them out to be. The Historicals are dolls with some educational flavor in the books. While several series did brush over some "sensitive" topics, they never go that deep, push back that much, and they don't hit as hard as nostalgia goggles let people think they do. The topics are watered down and glossed over for the palate of the average middle to upper class girl, and not much past that. I should know--I've read the books many times.1
Normally I don't do posts back to back, but this wailing and gnashing of teeth over AG is getting on my last damn nerve. Get behind the cut for the realness.
Let's start with the chunk that the article--and many people--stay really gung-ho on: Samantha and her brush with the lower class. The article states the following:
In the book A Lesson for Samantha, [Samantha] wins an essay contest at her elite academy with a pro-manufacturing message, but after conversations with Nellie, her best friend from a destitute background who has younger siblings working in brutal factory jobs, Samantha reverses course and ends us giving a speech against child labor in factories at the award ceremony. Given the class divide, Samantha's speech presumably takes place in front of the very industrial barons responsible for those factory conditions. The book is a bravura effort at teaching young girls about class privilege, speaking truth to power, and engaging with controversial social policy, all based on empathetic encounters with people whose life experiences differ from her own.This is only a thin sliver of the story. Yes, Samantha does learn that Nellie has had a very hard working life as a servant in the lower class--as a maid and a servant. She has even suffered working in a thread factory--her, not her sisters--and tells the details to Samantha. But only after Samantha proudly gives that pro-factory speech to Nellie, who flat out calls her on that directly. And in the movie, Samantha even directly sees the horror of someone getting mangled while working in a factory, for double the impact.
|Nellie: Initially here for a message about class. But not too much of it. Can't scare the kids.|
|That's enough about factory conditions, Nellie O'Malley. We have doll dresses to sell.|
In fact, it seems that the first two books were too impactful and full of message. After the first two books by Susan S. Adler, the writer was changed to Maxine Rose Schur for Samantha's Surprise and the book never touches class at all, instead shuffling Nellie and her well discussed issues way to the side for the riveting story of Samantha vs. Cornelia. Finally, the last three books are written by Valerie Tripp; the series kicks Nellie out of the picture altogether and replaces her with the Pitt twins until Changes for Samantha. Then it seems like the series remembers Nellie long enough to make her life suck seven levels of bad right before Samantha breaks them out of the orphanage, sneaks them into her uncle's house, and Uncle Gard and Aunt Cornelia adopt Nellie and her sisters--and everyone gets a happy warm family ending.
|Quick girls, come with me to a better life!|
|Quit complaining about classism, Nellie, you live with rich white people now.|
Then there's the bit on Addy. First of all, it's Addy, not "Addie." Come on. You could have Googled that shit, writers. It corrects itself in a search. How impactful was she if you can't remember how to spell her nickname? Ugh. As for her impact: Yes, the image of being forced to eat bugs is a chilling one. But for me, who knew about slavery from the time I was younger than Addy thanks to many books about my family and cultural history, wasn't startled into knowing that people kept slaves at the tender age of eight or nine. The part about her eating bugs squicked me out, yes. But the part about her brother and father being sold? It didn't hit so hard because--well, I already knew that happened. All the time. Slave owners sold people left and right and didn't care about family bonds. Some sells were specifically to break a family's spirit. Slave owners also beat and raped and abused their slaves in many ways. They didn't care about the people behind them. And at the end--don't get me wrong, Addy is my girl--Addy has only lost two members of her family permanently because Uncle Solomon and Aunt Lula die. She gets her dad, brother (sans one arm) and her baby sister all back. Addy's books discuss slavery the same way schools tend to--it was a nasty period where white people owned black people, but we're all past that now since we got better and Lincoln freed everyone, and then stuff was kind of rotten until the 50s and 60s and MLK had a dream so racism is over hooray, everything is better! Yes, that thump sound was my eyes rolling out of my head. The AG books mute the impact of slavery so that it doesn't scare the middle class white youth too much from getting Addy themselves. Plus she gets to the north and makes friends and her parents get jobs and almost everyone comes back so huzzah!
|Everyone's back together--well, Auntie Lula dies later, but everyone else is still together.|
Furthermore, Addy--while keeping the same writer through the series--has her illustrations drastically changed. The first three books were done by Melodye Rosales, who varied the skin colors and looks of the characters--for example making Addy medium skinned, Harriet high yellow3, Miss Dunn light, and Sarah towards the darker scale of color. But her pictures were too much for AG and too scary; they booted her and gave the last three books to Bradford Brown--who noticeably darkened Harriet up for Addy Saves the Day and did very bland, almost non emotional scenes that didn't hit too hard. Later, they brought in Dahl Taylor, who both standardized the looks of the books, cut the emotional impact down of many of the original scenes, and evened out the black people to a small range of browns--thus to get that nasty colorism out of the way and put that to rest. How very "radical" of you AG, to limit the skin tones of the black people shown to the colors that kept things nice and neat, and smush out the emotional impact. Here, have some examples from Addy's books:
|Melodye Rosales on the left, Dahl Taylor on the right.|
|Melodye Rosales on the left, Dahl Taylor on the right.|
|Melodye Rosales on the left, Dahl Taylor on the right.|
To skim the other two characters brought up: No, Kirsten doesn't care about Native American persecution. She cares about Singing Bird as a way to get away from her life because things are hard for her. There is a mention in Kirsten Learns a Lesson where she and her cousins bring up that the Sioux people are struggling to hunt because settlers are taking their land--and Lisbeth dismisses it as her papa saying the settlers need the land too and then brushing off the topic. But mostly, Kirsten thinks about the Native people as an escape from a life she doesn't like. She hates having to learn English and fantasizes about running off with Singing Bird and not having to work at things anymore. After Singing Bird and her people leave for the winter, Kirsten just sticks to it and likes school. And the story is not resolved in Kirsten on the Trail. The plot of that short story is that Kirsten's brother gets lost in the woods, Singing Bird helps Kirsten track him down, and Kirsten's mom is grateful and thus a little less of a bitch to Singing Bird and offers her bread. Woop-de-fucking-do. Felicity does buck a few traditional domestic roles for women and act like a tomboy--and at the same time, is shown to settle down and mature over the course of the series. She does dancing, and stitching, and all the stuff she doesn't care for. She never so much likes domestic work or being a lady, but she does it anyways. Because it's the goddamn 1770s and it's not like she was going to ride into Washington's army on the back of Penny and battle for America. She rebels within her circle, and once Penny is hers she minds her own. I mean--come the fuck on, her grandfather owned a plantation and slaves. Felicity's family owned slaves. That's not very buck the system.
Ah, but then the heart of the whining in almost every article and by every person who has a geek-on for the historicals: the complaints about the moddies, which claims every single time that AG now encourages making little clones of daughters and dressing them up like the dolly. Listen up good: I'm going to smother the next news article that claims that My AG dolls are customizable. They are not. They have never been. They have had 58 variant dolls that cover a span of looks--mostly white--and that's it. What writers are thinking of are the creepy My Twinn Dolls. The modern My American Girl (which have been called American Girl (of) Today from 1995 launch to 1998, American Girl Today from 1998 to 2006, and Just Like You from 2006 to 2010) are not customizable from AG. Nothing beyond ear piercing, glasses, and the recent add ons of converting to a bald doll and applying pink hearing aids. AG don't do eye swaps, they don't do every hair style or color combination, they don't freckle black girls--or most girls--they don't have a lot of face molds in circulation, and they don't repair or fix dolls that are highly customized. "Choose from this bank of pre-made things" is not customization. Get back to folk when we can choose face mold, skin tone, eye color, and wig style and color from get-go. Yes, I did happen to luck up and one of my gang members looks a shitload like me as a kid, Mellie. But in the sense that she's brown skinned with brown eyes and dark curly hair and a heart-shaped face. And that took until I was grown. So if everyone who writes news articles about AG could get off that jock of claiming little girls are going into an AG store and buying mini-me dolls, we can all get along smoothly.
As for the GotYs, I got beef with them--but not with some of the messages they go for. They have a year to get a single message out. The fact they can get two books for the character is not something I'm going to fuss too much about, and the messages they've done have been about as deep as the central series--that is, not at all. So far--since Nicki--we've gotten messages about service animals, ice skating and performing your own way, bullying (probably the deepest one), the environment and getting outdoors, the environment in Hawaii, gymnastics and reading books a lot, and how we shouldn't be cutting the fucking arts and music programs in schools because No Child Behind blows chunks and school shouldn't be about teaching to the goddamn tests. They're handled with the same grace and smoothness as the AG central series--that is, enough to make a message, and then on to the next Girl of the Year and the message du jour.
Finally, the catalogs. Yes, they cut most of the details down to almost nothing. I miss my AG centerfolds as much as the next person. But let's be honest, humanity. People, we as society don't really do catalogs anymore. Sears doesn't--and boy do I remember their holiday toy section, I could pour over that shit for hours. In 1986. Now they don't do that. Back in the early days of AG before they got a website for buying things on, the catalog was king. They had to show all the stuff they had available--because it was the only way to know the stuff they had for you to get. With the rise of the internet, there is no need to list everything out in a catalog--they waste trees and paper and don't show you stuff that isn't already on the site. Like most companies, AG throw it all up on the website, and sends the catalog when people request it. AG does a big holiday catalog generally, but really the catalog is around now for alerting people to the website and for the youth to look at some. Generally it sticks to the newest products and alerts you to get on the web and order the clean and efficient way. Wave of the future!
|As much as we miss these catalogs, we can get the news about new stuff online much faster.|
1 And will be referencing them this entire post. I own every single mainline AG book there is, and several of the side ones. I shit you not. I have a whole shelf of AG books and that won't hold em all.
2 Samantha was not Victorian. I refuse to go with that. She is Edwardian, or more accurately turn-of-the-century American progress.
3 High Yellow, or light skinned but not quite to the point of whiteness.