24 October 2007

American Girl pining for Pleasant Company

We all have guilty pleasures; mine is the American Girl catalog. But wait! It's not what you think!

Back in Ye Goode Olde Days, back before American Girl became a well-known brand as despised as it is beloved, there was Pleasant Company, founded by a former educator and education publisher who created The American Girls Collection.

There were three sets of three books that told stories about three young girls who lived during three different periods of American history. Kirsten was a Swedish immigrant on the American frontier in 1854 making a home and finding herself in a new land filled with new people speaking a new language. Samantha was a wealthy Victorian orphan in 1904 who stood up to the social injustices of her time with an endearing innocence and an indomitable spirit. Molly was a typical American girl in 1944 until her world was shaken by World War II; as she learned to cope with the changes in her own life she discovered a new perspective on the wider world.

The American Girls were a fun and novel way for girls to learn about American history and the value of self-confidence as they were beginning to read books that had chapters in them, colorfully illustrated stories of other girls their own age living during historical periods that are usually only glossed over at that grade level. Here's a girl like me who lived a long time ago, here's what she wore, here's what she played with, here's what she ate and learned in school, what she got for Christmas and what she did for her birthday. Many things were very different, some things are still the same. This is what life was like back then. This is how American girls discovered the courage to be themselves and lead the changes of their time.

Oh, and there were dolls that went with the books, and accessories that went with the dolls. And you could also get period costumes that matched the dolls' outfits, as well as cookbooks, craft kits, and games like the characters played. But I remember the whole thing focusing mostly on the books. Sure, the catalog featured glossy pictures of the pricey play sets you could get--just like in the books!--but I'm pretty sure they were pitched as miniature reproductions for acting out the stories, not just high-quality toys with books to promote them. Maybe it's because I was more book-oriented than the average eight-year-old girl. Maybe it's because the books were freely available in the public and school libraries, unlike the dolls. Maybe it's because nothing is ever quite as good as you remember it being once upon a time. Or maybe it's because the whole thing really did focus mostly on the books.

One thing's for sure, though: the tales of Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly now play second fiddle to all the new collectible stuff that's rolled out fresh each holiday season. When did the American Girls fade into the background of American Girl the brand? I'm not really sure. Perhaps there wasn't single, definitive, objective turning point for Pleasant Company, but I don't doubt that the acquisition by Mattel resulted in some major marketing shift.

I still get the catalog each year; now it comes to my mailbox addressed to someone else, but I keep it anyway and don't tell them to stop sending it. I leaf through it when I'm feeling bored, nostalgic, or cynical (usually in that order); I call my mom (she's always loved the catalog too) and we discuss the new products and lament the discontinued ones. Once or twice we even went inside American Girl Place and reminisced while we deconstructed everything in sight ("Why is this soccer uniform pale purple? What message is that sending?") and thoroughly confused both the customers and the employees. Good times.

The 2007 holiday catalog arrived today (meet Julie, from 1974). The cover shows a pair of dolled-up, smiling, picture-perfect blondes with matching tiaras, and my cynical self can't help but be disgusted. It's not just because I feel like being a pissy feminist today. It's not just because the company selling girls the idea that they can do anything is implying that all they really need to do is just smile and look pretty. It's because somewhere in the bottom of a drawer I didn't clean out is a catalog from about 15 years ago, and on the cover is a picture of a girl in a cozy robe curled up next to her doll, reading a book.

Just like I am now, minus the doll.

It's the disgust that accompanies betrayal.


At 24 October, 2007 13:09, Anonymous jessica said...

i remember there was a pretty big controversy surrounding one of the girls a couple of years ago. the author had her family move out of pilsen because it was dangerous, and instead move to the safer suburb of desplaines. people in pilsen were not happy!

At 24 October, 2007 13:41, Blogger Jennifer said...

Oh that's right, Marisol. Lots of people were not happy with her for all sorts of reasons, but I rather liked the idea. Was that the same year that conservatives tried to boycott American Girl for selling those bracelets, and American Girl responded by basically saying that they didn't care?

I applauded them for standing up to they whiny "family values" crowd like that, but it seems lately they're afraid to do anything that could be considered even remotely controversial. And that saddens me, because American Girl is such a popular brand. In the past they'd successfully used that popularity to push something refreshingly different from the Barbie-girl image, but now we're seeing it right there on the cover of the catalog.

And I'm repeating myself, so I'll leave it at that for now.


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