It would be easy to say that girlhood is dead. Beyonce’s children’s line runs clothing ads encouraging us to upgrade our daughters’ “Boyfriend Out of Town” T-shirts to skimpy jean jackets that make girls look like pint-sized back-up dancers. Little girls take pole-dancing lessons and shake what their mama so recently gave them as a part of their balanced fitness routine. With more glitter, more vapidity, and what looks like more plastic surgery, Bratz dolls are starting to dominate youthful sleepovers.
Quietly under the radar of the neon Lil’ Lolita culture, however, a bit of traditional girlhood still thrives in the American Girl dolls, which have sold over 14 million dolls and 123 million books since coming to life in 1986. Rather than wearing the latest fashions and handing out tips on catching the cutest boys, these dolls represent various eras in American history.
If you haven’t had a little girl in your life in recent years, you probably have never met Victorian Samantha or Colonial Felicity. They resemble old-fashioned china dolls, but are built to be pitched around by small hands, and their craftsmanship (and price) implicitly disdains the impermanence of plastic toys. Should a doll be broken, she is sent to American Girl’s Doll Hospital for repair and discharged home with a small hospital gown and “Get Well Soon” balloon. Little girls learn quickly that this toy must be treated with a special respect, especially once they begin to acquire the dolls’ historically accurate accessories whose costs often rise into the triple digits.
No curves ahead here: They look like real girls, with chubby cheeks, pudgy limbs, and teeny-tiny baby teeth. They wear aprons and bonnets; what they lack in glamour, they make up for with the mystique of history. Young girls are entranced to find a doll that looks “just like me” but wears a hoopskirt and uses a pony.
The parental appeal of American Girl dolls stems from the company’s mission to “create girls of strong character” and help them to “grow up in a wholesome way.” The dolls are paired not with a seizure-inducing TV program, but with a series of slim, accessible books in which each character bravely rights some wrong in a series of fabulous outfits with loyal friends and a scrappy pet by her side. Boys still have cooties, but sewing replaces shopping, and television does not even exist yet. There’s also an unabashedly feminine series of direct-your-own-play scripts, puzzle books, journals, and more.
These cookbooks, craftbooks, and treasuries of sleepover games have a tint of seriousness through what one might call mutually agreeable feminism. These characters achieve a uniquely girly assertiveness. It celebrates strong women in a way that attracts Christian bookstores to hold American Girl dress-up parties while also hooking feminists unwilling to pass on Barbie, in all her symbolic glory, to their young womyn. When some of the company’s philanthropic work was found to support abortion and homosexual activists through the group Girls, Inc., they quietly but firmly withdrew in a way that mollified many customers.
The company continues their pitch-perfect marketing as they tenaciously straddle the line of broadly covering American history without turning into a P.C. mishmash of ethnically appropriate dolls. As the historical brands have grown, so have the diversity of the characters. Adding a pre-Colonial American Indian Girl, a Spanish Colonial from Santa Fe, or even a San Franciscan hippie is less of an homage to multiculturalism than it is the natural expansion of a corporation to its market.
Now this titan of girlhood is trying to see if that expansive appeal will translate into a box-office hit this weekend in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, backed by an all-star cast and produced by none other than Julia Roberts. Abigail Breslin, the breakout Little Miss Sunshine star, animates the titular character with her soon-to-be-trademark sprightly authenticity. In Sunshine, her honest girlhood provided a stark contrast to the painted dolls of children’s beauty pageants. Now she has a chance to bring an actual doll to life on the silver screen, and she cranks up the signature spunk of Depression Era aspiring reporter, Kit Kittredge, shining in a blond wig and feedsack dress.
The movie connects several plots: Kit’s family suffers hardship in the face of the Depression; Kit strives to become a published reporter; Kit works to solve a series of local crimes; Kit even champions the virtuous hobo colonies against undue oppression. An endless parade of quirky characters enter the scene as her family strives to hold on to their home by converting it to a dreamlike boarding house packed with out-of-work friends and entertainers. Kit Kittredge is painstakingly aimed at children, with the snippets of plot suited to fit the common attention span of a child’s mind. It even throws in an elaborate treehouse sure to be coveted by every little girl, and an utterly gratuitous spider monkey for good measure.
Aside from a few weirdly out-of-place double entendres and a startling New Deal endorsement to “steal from the rich and give to the poor,” the movie is as wholesome and innocent as Vitamin D milk. This heartwarming film about staying true to family, friends, and morals during times of hardship waltzes leisurely along to the simple tunes of the 1930s, from “Paper Moon” to “Don’t Fence Me In.” Blessedly absent are the potty humor and sass that so frequently clutter children’s films. Yet it doesn’t date itself; it hits on tough issues faced by many modern girls, such as absentee fatherhood and divorce. The bad guys turn out to be not all that bad, and most everything is made right by the end of the film. It’s no great opus, but it is a welcome bit of butterscotch during a summer blockbuster season of laser robot ninja battles.
Legions of moms and dads will empty their wallets this weekend for Kit Kittredge and her many accoutrements without protest. Why will so many dish out $250 for a miniature replica of Kit’s treehouse? They can’t help but think it a small price to pay for their daughters to grow into American Girls rather than Bratz.
– Emily Karrs is an editorial associate at National Review.