So, I’m sitting at work trying to avoid the multitude of final assignments things I could be doing, naturally, and trying to shift in vain to a comfortable position on the terrible metal stools which provide our only source of seating other than the floor here. You just have to expect ass numbness when working a shift especially a seven hour one like I am working tonight.
At any rate, enough about my desensitized rear…
So I was perusing a few sites looking for interesting diversions when I stumbled upon the work of Polish photographer Ilona Szwarc. Szwarc recently produced a series of photographs of American Girls with their American Girl dolls. For those of you who don’t know what American Girl dolls are, they are 18″ dolls with plastic limbs and heads and soft cloth bodies made to resemble and for the nine to eleven-year-old set. There are a series of dolls who portray girls from different time periods in American history and are accompanied by series of books which tell their stories set within a greater American historical context. There are also dolls called “My American Girl” who are made to represent American girls of today (in fact that’s what they were called when I was playing with them in the early to mid 1990s). These dolls come dressed in modern clothing and a variety of extra contemporary outfits and accessories may be purchased for them. The American Girl dolls are not cheap, but many girls in this country have played with them since their introduction in 1986, myself included. The dolls are marketed as a healthier, more positive alternative doll to many of the others on the market today (ahem, Barbie), and are designed to empower girls.
Szwarc was fascinated by this trend in America. She does not see the dolls as positive. She instead sees them as symbols of conformity that reinforce traditional gender roles. She provides this explanation on her website:
“The American Girl Product defines and categorizes American girls- future American women- and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how. The branding behind the doll perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles. I examine how culture and society conditions gender and how it invents childhood. Gender becomes a performance that is mirrored in the performance of my subjects for the camera”
Wow, that is a lot to read into a bunch of dolls. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is spot on. I will weigh in with my opinion, though. I grew up playing with American Girl dolls. In my closet, long packed away in a plastic tub, lay three as well as a multitude of outfits and accessories acquired from the American Girl catalogs I used to pour over, by my mother and father’s crafty hands, or from random places I happened to visit. Every year for most of my childhood my grandmother bought me clothes from the catalogs accompanied usually by a matching set for my dolls. I read each issue of American Girl Magazine from cover to cover.I spent hours playing out stories in Mexican ruled Santa Fe, on the home front in Illinois during WWII, and, my favorite, in the streets of Williamsburg, Virginia, on the cusp of the American Revolution. I was drawn to the dolls through a love of history. I read the books for all of the dolls, not just my own, and fostered a love for historical fiction. I spent hours imagining what I would do if I lived in such and such a time with a life like those of the girls in the books. I never took much interest in the create-a-look-alike modern dolls. They had no stories. They didn’t escape mean slaveholders, immigrate from far away countries, or write letters to fathers away at war. They were boring to me.
In many ways I probably have American Girl dolls, as trite as it sounds, to thank for exciting my historical imagination and putting me on the academic and career paths I am on now. So I find it hard to accept Szwarc’s ideas about them entirely. For me, and granted I haven’t played with one of these dolls for many years, the historical dolls are a separate entity from the “My American Girl Dolls.” When I skimmed through that part of the catalog, though, I saw representations of girls doing things I did (hiking, playing with pets, having sleepovers, painting, etc.) and things I did not do (skiing/snowboarding, dancing, playing sports, kayaking, etc.). For fun, I took a look at this section of the website, which was an odd experience just looking at the brand online, and found that nothing much besides the fashions has changed in this respect. There are maybe a few more fashion outfits unassociated with activities now, but for the most part they still imitate activities that both girls and boys in America engage in every day. I don’t exactly, or maybe I just can’t from my nostalgic vantage point, how they condition traditional gender roles. I can see where they reinforce the consumer culture of the U.S., with their ever changing array of products to buy to keep the dolls up to date. Not many of my friends growing up had the dolls, though. It wasn’t really a status symbol then as she seems to suggest it is now. I can’t speak to that as I am not in the world of girl anymore.
I can’t be critical of these dolls. To me, they will always be a symbol of my childhood from which I became the educated feminist freethinker that I am today. Those dolls represented play, imagination, and love and still do in my mind. They will always be a better alternative to the Barbie dolls I also played with as a child but would never let my own hypothetical daughters play with in some distant future or the Bratz dolls who came after my childhood, but are equally disturbing. I think those are more worthy, not to beat a dead horse, subjects for attacks involving the perpetuation of outmoded gender roles, or the cause of negative body image, or the sexual objectification of women. When I compare American Girls to this, I’m way more inclined to give them a break.
All this aside, I still find Szwarc’s images of these girls and their dolls hauntingly beautiful. Them way she poses many of them so captures the idealized view of girlhood, but their vacant stares, which mimic those of their dolls, leave a sense of emptiness. It’s almost as if these girls have been so desensitized by the constant “more more more!” of American consumer culture, that they can’t enjoy the fun marketed to them with the dolls. Some of the images eerily make the girls look much older than they actually are as if, through the lens, Szwarc has captured a fleeting glimpse of the woman the girl will one day become…and it isn’t exactly a happy one.
Maybe I’m truly discovering that I am from a different time. Maybe the demographic has changed and the girlhood I experienced is much removed from those experienced today. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I love these images for their aesthetic qualities, which can all be found on her website here. I encourage you to all have a look and decide what you think about their context for yourselves.
And on one final note related to dolls:
One of my cousins posted this picture on Facebook earlier:
First of all let me begin by saying how strongly I support St. Jude’s and the work they do, and I love anything that gives them more money to continue. However, I am torn on this product. Is she supposed to show support for the horrors the children at St. Jude are experiencing. If she is, why don’t they have her in pajamas hooked to bags and machines, going through chemo, really reflecting the experience of cancer. Why is this only represented with a bald head? Why is she in an awful evening gown instead. Why is it Barbie and not one of her younger doll sisters? Perhaps I am too jaded about Barbie to recognize that the good of this outweighs the bogusness. Maybe Barbie, with her ridiculous proportions and unrealistic beauty can teach young girls suffering with cancer or other terminal diseases that they too are still beautiful regardless of their illnesses. I don’t know about this one either, but I thought it was an interesting artifact of our age. It could be worse, it could be a Bratz doll.