American Girl dolls: from adventure heroes to helicopter-parented, sheltered junior spa-bunnies

Writing in The Atlantic, Amy Schiller documents how Mattel has spent the past 15 years transforming the expensive, highly detailed American Girl dolls from a source of radical inspiration that signposted moments in the history of the struggles for justice and equality in the US, into posh upper-middle-class girls who raise money for bake sales. As Lenore Skenazy points out, the original American Girls were children who had wild adventures without adult oversight; the new crop are helicopter-parented and sheltered, and their idea of high adventure is a closely supervised day in the snow.

Saige is white and upper-middle-class, just like McKenna the gymnast and Lanie the amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast, both previous Girls of the Year. Even in their attempt to encourage spunky and active girlhoods, their approaches to problem solving are highly local—one has a bake sale to help save the arts program in a local school, another scores a victory for the organic food movement when she persuades a neighbor to stop using pesticides.

By contrast, the original dolls confronted some of the most heated issues of their respective times. In the book A Lesson for Samantha, she 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.

American Girls Aren't Radical Anymore (via Free Range Kids)