This week over at Willow and Thatch, I’m reviewing the American Girl movies for anyone interested in family-friendly period films. You could say that the American Girl dolls and books were one of my first introductions to history when I was growing up, so this post holds a special place in my heart. You can find it here.
In 1986, Pleasant Company (now a subsidiary of Mattel) began offering keepsake-quality dolls and accompanying books about girls living through key historical moments, like the Progressive Era (Samantha, the doll I owned) and World War II (Molly, the doll my sister had). Since my childhood, the company’s expanded to offer contemporary dolls and books, plus media tie-ins, like the movies and web specials I review in the post. I had the pleasure of revisiting beloved characters–remembering their signature outfits (which you could purchase, of course), their struggles, and their triumphs–and meeting engaging new characters, too.
Since this was my first time revisiting the American Girl characters as an adult, I also grappled with their portrayals in ways I never grasped as a kid. For example, the Felicity movie, about the spunky daughter of a merchant living through the Revolutionary War, features black characters described as enslaved in the original books. However, slavery is never mentioned once in the film. This, in spite of the slaves who fought on the side of the Patriots, who joined the British army when offered freedom. In spite of the way the framers of the Constitution publicly declared they would never again be enslaved to Mother England, while reinforcing the institution of slavery in the Constitution itself. Yes, there’s something to be said for using caution in historical films meant for kids. But in a movie that discusses self-determination–Felicity must decide for herself whether she’s a Patriot or a Loyalist–surely there’s room for a sensitively-handled introduction to the Patriots’ hypocrisy regarding slavery.
Additionally, as the epitome of a WASP growing up in northeastern Ohio, I managed to skate through childhood blissfully unaware of my cultural privilege. So I never had to confront the fact that while the original American Girl dolls insert girls into the history of dead white males, they still reinforce the white, Christian culture of traditional American history. Sure, African American character Addy was introduced in 1993–but it’s hugely problematic that the only character of color is also enslaved at the beginning of her story. Later generations of American Girl dolls introduced different religions and ethnic backgrounds into the mix, and broadened the types of stories given to these characters. It’s encouraging that the web specials featured some of these newer characters, and I can only hope that however American Girl continues, it’s with diversity in mind.
You can read my original review (minus the complicated historical musings) here.