THE AMERICAN GIRL DOLLS:
CONSTRUCTING AMERICAN GIRLHOOD THROUGH REPRESENTATION AND IDENTITY
Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602
Phone/Fax: (706) 208-0252
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division
AEJMC National Convention
New Orleans, LA
The American Girl Dolls
THE AMERICAN GIRL DOLLS:
CONSTRUCTING AMERICAN GIRLHOOD THROUGH REPRESENTATION AND IDENTITY
The American Girl dolls, books, and related products-created, manufactured, and
marketed by Pleasant Company of Middleton, Wisconsin-is an enormously successful
line of girls' paraphernalia that, until recently, was sold only by mail-order
catalog. Through textual analysis of the catalogs and books, this paper attempts
to understand how an "American girl" identity is constructed through these
products, and how meaning is produced in these texts through the representation
of a particular version of past and present American girlhood.
We give girls chocolate cake with vitamins. Our books are exciting, our magazine
is fun, and our dolls are pretty. But most importantly, they all give girls a
sense of self and an understanding of where they came from and who they are
today. (Pleasant T. Rowland in Pleasant Company web site, 1998).
In 1985 Pleasant T. Rowland, "a former teacher and textbook author" (Pleasant
Company, 1998), founded Pleasant Company. With a staff of four people, the
company developed three "historical" dolls and their books: Kirsten, Samantha
and Molly. The dolls did not represent actual historical characters. They were
historical in the sense that they represent a period in U.S. history. Kirsten
was called "a pioneer girl of strength and spirit" from 1854. Samantha was
defined as "a bright Victorian beauty" of 1904, and Molly-"a lovable schemer and
dreamer"- represented the WWII year of 1944. These dolls, books, and related
merchandise were sold only by mail order catalog. In 1990 the company introduced
"spunky, spritely colonial" Felicity of 1774. Two years later Addy, the only
African American doll, came along. Defined as "a courageous girl of the Civil
War," she was historically placed in 1864. In 1997, Pleasant Company introduced
its newest doll, Josefina-"an Hispanic girl of heart and hope"-who was situated
in 1824 New Mexico. These six dolls, their books (each doll has six books), and
assorted related merchandise -which includes clothes, furniture, accessories,
and matching outfits for girls-comprise Pleasant Company's The American Girls
Today, the company has other product lines which are also sold exclusively by
catalog: (1) American Girl of Today, which consists of "contemporary " dolls.
Girls can choose their doll from 20 different combinations of hair texture, some
facial features-such as wider nose and oblique eyes-and skin, hair and eye
colors. These dolls come with blank books for girls to write in. Clothing,
furniture and accessories are also available for them. (2) The Bitty Baby
Collection, five babies that represent different ethnicities-African American,
Brunette Caucasian, Blond Caucasian, Asian American and Hispanic- are offered
along with clothing, accessories and furniture needed for baby care. (3)
American Girl Library which includes a bimonthly magazine and more than a dozen
titles such as Bright Ideas from Girls, for Girls, Super Slumber Parties and
Oops! The Manners Guide for Girls. (4) American Girl Gear which consists of a
line of clothes and accessories for girls ages 7 to 12.
Pleasant Company has also created The American Girls Club and sponsors special
events and programs such as "Samantha's Ice Cream Social," "Welcome Josefina!"
and "The American Girls Fashion Show." It also boasts a set of museum programs
which include "Felicity in Williamsburg," "Kirsten in Gammelg rden," "Addy at
Ohio Village," "Molly at Strawbery Banke Museum," "Samantha at the Heurich House
Museum" and "Samantha at Greenfield Village." The company has its own web page
and even sells an interactive CD-ROM.
The company is a huge success. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mattel's
Barbie and Pleasant Company controlled more than 40 percent of the 1996 U.S.
doll Market. Having sold 48 million books and more than 4 million dolls, the
company amassed sales of $287 million in 1997 (Hellmich, 1998). Its success can
also be measured by the amount of competition it has produced. Companies such as
Global Friends, The Magic Attic Club, and Just Pretend have all copied the
concept of selling dolls exclusively by mail catalog. Each of their dolls also
comes with books, costumes, furniture and accessories.
In June of 1998, Pleasant Company was acquired by Mattel Inc. Jill Barad,
Mattel's chairperson, has promised that Pleasant Company will be kept as a
separate, autonomous unit headed by its founder and the company's headquarters
will remain in Middleton, Wisconsin. The deal, in which Mattel paid a hefty
price tag of $700 million, made Rowland Mattel's vice-chairperson and earned her
a spot as a candidate in Good Housekeeping's "30th annual most admired women
poll" (1998). The outcome is an interesting alliance between two very different
companies. A small, direct marketing company whose products were created
specifically as an alternative to the big company's prime product, Barbie, and a
large company which is responding to signs that the retail toy business may be
weakening (Bannon, 1998).
Two other important changes occurred in 1998 which were not related to Mattel's
purchase (Hajewski, 1998a; Levine, 1998). In July, Pleasant Company opened its
first outlet store in Wisconsin, dedicated to the AG Gear line of clothing. In
November, American Girl Place opened its doors, "the only place in the world
where American Girls dolls can be bought on site" (Hajewski, 1998b, p. 1). This
huge store, located in Chicago, includes a boutique, a bookstore, a restaurant,
and a theater.
Parents have given rave revues to Pleasant Company's products. News stories
about the company usually feature an array of positive parental opinions that
stress the educational aspects of the collection, the realism of its characters,
the presentation of positive role models, and the overall wholesomeness of the
concept which makes them worthy of their high price ($82). AG events have taken
place in 46 states, with 200,000 attendants who have helped raise more than $4
million for different non-profit organizations (Phillips, 1998, p. 1C). For
instance, in Athens, Georgia, three AG events have been huge successes with
sold-out attendances that include girls who live six hours away from the event.
In the same town, a local elementary school has "The American Girls Club" as one
of its most successful after-school programs. Across the country, bookstores
feature AG book clubs that meet on a regular basis. I believe that this success
can be defined as a cultural phenomenon.
This paper is part of a larger cultural study that attempts to understand the
meanings associated with the AG products through textual analysis of the AG
catalogs and books, and in-depth interviews of girls who own these dolls and
their mothers. I place this study in a feminist cultural studies tradition,
attempting to heed Alexander and Morrison's (1995) call for "the monumental
task" of doing critical research on children that includes:
[C]areful ethnographic studies that examine interpretation of texts in the
context of children's culture. With a post-modern focus on intertextuality, a
semiotic and structuralist microscopic examination of texts, a cultural studies
foregrounding of everyday practice, and a strong underpinning of the realities
of economic structure (p. 351).
This report focuses on the textual analysis of the catalogs and books. Its
objective is to understand how an "American girl" identity is constructed
through these products, and how these texts affect the "available stock of
meanings" (Hall, 1975, p. 12) associated with the AG paraphernalia.
I first explain the reasons for the study of these catalogs, dolls, and books,
followed by a review of the literature concerned with dolls, toys, and girls. I
then describe the theoretical grid that organizes and guides this research and
its methodology. The textual analysis findings are reported followed by a brief
discussion of their implications for mass communication studies.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
According to du Gay et al (1997), a product is cultural if (a) it is
constituted as a meaningful object, (b) it is connected to a distinct set of
social practices, (c) it is associated with certain kinds of people and places,
producing-in turn-a social profile or identity, and (d) is represented through
communication media. I believe that the concept and the collection of products
sold by Pleasant Company comply with this definition of cultural since: (a)
there are certain meanings-i.e.: educational, wholesome, "American," etc.- that
seem to be associated with the AG merchandise, (b) most of the products seem to
be connected with the social practices of playing, reading and collecting, (c)
the merchandise is targeted specifically to girls in the United States, and (d)
the dolls and related products are sold (almost exclusively) by mail catalog, a
communication medium that has proven to be highly successful in the U.S
(Rosenfield, 1999). In sum, AG dolls are now part of the cultural universe of
young girls in this country. This, in itself, sanctions research on the subject.
The topic also presents an interesting set of gender issues. Pleasant Company
was founded by a woman and its products are geared exclusively toward girls.
Moreover, according to Rowland, 80 percent of her company's employees are women.
"That is not by design. But I have to say, they are the only people who believed
in the beginning that this could ever happen. Men just didn't understand the
idea of the products, didn't think that they were necessary, couldn't understand
the subtlety of the different message that we were trying to send" (Rowland as
quoted in Morgenson, 1997, p. 132).
Looking at the catalogs we cannot help but notice that one of the themes is the
definition of an "American girl." The dolls purport to represent time periods in
American history and-in the case of Kirsten, Josefina and Addy-they also
represent ethnicities. Representation has always been one of the sites of
struggle for feminism. "The women's movement is not only engaged in a material
struggle about equal rights and opportunities for women, but also in a symbolic
conflict about definitions of femininity" (emphasis added, van Zoonen, 1994, p.
12). Feminist scholars have acknowledged the role the mass media play in the
construction and representation of the feminine. Nevertheless, research has
focused-for the most part-on adult women. There are some studies about teenage
girls (Frazer, 1987; Peirce, 1990, 1993, 1995; Evans et al., 1991; McRobbie,
1991; Duffy & Gotcher, 1996; Duke & Kreshel, 1998; Garner et al., 1998).
However, the American Girl doll consumers are younger (7-12 year-olds). They are
an understudied population.
Feminists scholars argue that there is a need to study "the specificity and
power of language(s) and their relation to knowledge, context and locality"
(Parpart & Marchand, 1995, p. 2). Dolls, books and catalogs-seemingly innocent
artifacts and texts-can be deeply ideological. They have the power to reinforce
a common sense of sorts that, in reality, could be yet another dose of a
dominant ideology that devalues and debases women. On the other hand, they could
also be working as empowering tools for these women-in-the-making. In both
cases, ideological work is being performed and it needs to be analyzed.
Culture is closely related to meaning and communication (Williams, 1963). Girls
who know about the American Girl dolls share a web of meanings that helps them
interpret and make sense of the world. The study of how these meanings are
produced, modified and consumed in everyday life will allow us to understand not
only the dolls as cultural artifacts, but also some of the shared meanings and
social practices that constitute our culture since "culture is concerned with
the production and the exchange of meanings-the 'giving and taking of
meaning'-between the members of a society or group" (Hall, 1997a, p. 2).
DOLLS AND TOYS: CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
Toys and their marketing do not belong exclusively to the business (McNeal,
1992; Del Vecchio, 1997; Acuff & Reiher, 1997; Miller, 1998) and economic
realms. Historical and cultural analyses suggest that marketing and consumption
have considerable cultural importance. For instance, Gary Cross (1997) looked at
childhood in the United States through the study of its toys. He states that in
the 1900s toys were a reflection of parents' notions about what the future held
for their children, e.g.: baby dolls for girls, erector sets for boys. This is a
far cry from today's toy industry which consists of giant, dominant corporations
like Hasbro and Mattel which have transformed the industry into one which
"appeal[s] directly to the longings and imaginations of children" (p. 5). The
toy industry, according to Cross has by-passed parents and now markets directly
to children especially through television. He mention the AG dolls as a break
from the 1980s trends of providing play narratives through television and of
The [AG] doll line was too expensive for many parents. But the play scheme
represented a clear and opposing alternative to the Barbie. The books and other
literature stressed a positive 'can do' image of young girls rather than
encouraging the child to identify with a 'teen-age model'. Instead of watching
TV, the doll owner was to get her play narrative from reading. And in place of
fashion play the American Girl Collection invited the historical reenactment of
the lives of girls with families in realistic situations. But this product was
an exception (p. 225).
Historian Miriam Formanek-Brunnell (1993) also looked at toys in search for
clues about childhood. She concentrated on the production aspects of the doll
industry from 1830 to 1930, detailing the struggle between male and female doll
creators to control the doll market. Formanek-Brunnell argues that dominating
the doll market meant controlling the conceptualization of American girlhood.
Her book provides insights into how the girls' desire to play with dolls was not
as "natural" as we prefer to believe; but was more of an ideological and
cultural production influenced by changes in gender roles and child-rearing
The idea that the study of popular culture artifacts sheds light on the
understanding of culture at large is further explored in a collection of essays
edited by Harry Eiss (1994) which deals with a variety of topics such as girls'
book series, rap music, children and advertising, and movies. The chapters
analyze how these different texts have embedded images of children that are a
reflection of the entire culture. In his book Toys as Culture, Brian
Sutton-Smith (1986) also argues that toys are related to cultural, social and
historical patterns. His main interest is the study of the social and cultural
context of children's play. Sutton-Smith suggests that toys provide a tool for
socialization that is, at the same time, flexible and engaging since toys carry
diverse and conflicting meanings. He explores these meanings according to
different contexts ("domains"), i.e.: family, school, the market, technology
Dan Fleming (1996) believes that Sutton-Smith's analysis, although
enlightening, is missing any reference to "the structure of feeling that runs
through these sorts of context and forms the basis, in part, for their
interpretation" (p. 33). In order to mend this lack, Fleming uses a cultural
studies approach to highlight the relationships between toys and texts
(particularly advertising), and between toys and identity. He suggests that play
is a product of structures of feelings and toys constitute a system of meanings
(a semiotic system) that is at the intersection of representational, social,
cultural and historical factors which are inextricably interconnected. "We end
up with vast interlocking chains of factors which together form a dense context
out of which the particular object, the toy, derives its particular meanings"
Stephen Kline (1993) takes up the analysis of one of these chains of factors.
Using a political economy perspective, he examines the influence of the
marketplace through the study of the evolution of children's consumerism. Kline
focuses on the history of television marketing directed at children, and looks
at product licensing as the successful combination of toy marketing and the
culture industry, i.e.: the mass media. His study underscores that faith in the
market as the mechanism that ensures consumer sovereignty is fatally misplaced,
especially when the issue at hand is children and the goods they consume.
Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe have edited the volume Kinderculture
(1997), a collection of studies situated in the intersection of childhood
studies and cultural studies. Each chapter underscores that childhood "is a
social and historical artifact, not simply a biological entity" that is socially
constructed and constricted by the exercise of social, cultural, political, and
economic forces. The essays look at how large corporations produce a specific
brand of popular culture, "kinderculture," reared specifically to children. The
authors unpack kinderculture's messages and their construction of childhood. In
particular, the collection studies kinderculture's texts, the changing
conception of childhood, and how the latter is related to the dynamic nature of
children's experience with the media. Among the texts analyzed is Jeanne
Brady's study of the AG dolls, in which she looks at the role of the AG books in
the construction of classroom knowledge"within a narrow view of history" (p.
220). The book lacks, however, a look at children's reactions to the texts
MASS COMMUNICATION RESEARCH FOR AND ABOUT GIRLS
There is an impressive body of research that focuses on women and almost every
aspect of the mass communication spectrum, i.e.: advertising (Kervin, 1991;
Lazier & Kendrick, 1993; Steinem, 1995), advertising and eating disorders
(Meyers & Biocca, 1992; Harrison & Cantor, 1997), television (Deming & Jenkins,
1991; Kaplan, 1992; Heide, 1995; Lee, 1995; Dow, 1996; Brundson et al., 1997),
print media (Meyers, 1994; Acosta-Alzuru, 1997; Lule, 1997), public relations
(Cline & Toth, 1993; Hon et al., 1993; Hon, 1995; Chen & Culbertson, 1996;
Aldoory, 1998), representations of rape and violence (Meyers, 1994; Cuklanz,
1996; Comerford, 1997; Hayward, 1997), and pornography (Dines, 1995; Dworkin,
1995; Hill Collins, 1995; McDonald, 1995). Researchers have also analyzed how
women consume media, looking-in particular-at film (Mulvey, 1975; Ryan, 1988;
Bobo, 1995), soap operas (Barrios, 1988; Ang, 1990; Brown, 1994; Brundson, 1995;
Gillespie, 1995; Mart!n-Barbero, 1995; Modleski, 1995; Rogers, 1995), magazines
(Ferguson, 1983; McCracken, 1993; Steiner, 1995; Durham, 1996), and romance
novels (Radway, 1991; Bachen & Illouz, 1996; Parameswaran, 1997).
These strands of research, however, have focused for the most part on adult
women. Some scholars have looked at the interaction between teenage girls and
media, paying particular attention to the study of teen magazines (Frazer, 1987;
Peirce, 1990, 1993, 1995; Evans et al., 1991; McRobbie, 1991; Duffy & Gotcher,
1996; Duke & Kreshel, 1998; Garner et al., 1998) and how these "acculturate
readers into consumers" (Garner et al., 1998, p. 60) while presenting images
that affect their readers' assessment of themselves (Duke & Kreshel, 1998).
An examination of the literature of children and media (Lull, 1988; Bryant,
1990; Gunter & McAleer, 1990; Van Evra, 1990; Signorielli, 1991; Buckingham,
1993; Zillmann et al., 1994; Fox, 1996) also shows an almost total lack of
research for and about girls. There are a few notable exceptions: Chris
Richard's analysis of girls' readings of television, and how these are situated
in the context of the girls' social relationships (1993), Valerie Walkerdine's
(1993) psychoanalytic study of one working-class family viewing the film Annie,
and Gemma Moss look at twelve-year-old romance readers (1993). However, there
is a clear research void regarding the study of younger girls and their
interaction with the media.
The academic literature on direct mail and catalog advertising is limited. A
look at the major advertising academic journals-Journal of Advertising, Journal
of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Research-exposes only passing mentions to
and no analyses of catalogs. Barbara Stern's article in the Journal of
Advertising (1992) is a notable exception. She includes mail catalogs, along
with advertisements, commercial communications, and periodicals, as the texts of
her literary analysis that explores the links between historical and personal
nostalgia and consumer effects.
Journals that foster critical and cultural research publish some critical
advertising research. Still, articles concentrating on direct mail and
catalog advertising are rare. The few published works in this area focus on two
catalogs: Banana Republic and J. Peterman. Paul Smith (1988) looked at Banana
Republic's chain-store and catalogs as a "post-modernist production" to which
the catalogs contribute with their "multivocalism" and a "cult for
To claim 'genuineness' for the Banana Republic merchandise, the catalog
introduces a variety of references to historical moments in an emulsion of irony
and satire, clich s and stereotypes, apocryphal histories and factoids, and so
on (p. 143).
The Banana Republic catalogs have also been the focus of Elizabeth Lester's
critique (1992), who argues that this text's discursive strategies, notably the
"exoticizing of Others," commodifies the "Third World" and reinforces global
consumption as a "First World" activity. Lester (1997) also analyzed the Nissan
Pathfinder direct mail campaign, arguing that advertising's pervasiveness
naturalizes its tremendous signifying power. The "most distinctive catalog"
(Rosenfield, 1999, p. 35), the J. Peterman catalog, has also been the focus of
Lester's textual analysis (1998), which highlights the catalogs' ideological
work that perpetuates a particular geo-political status quo and becomes the
ultimate "simulacrum" (Baudrillard, 1994) that connects the present to a
nostalgic, mythic past.
But, it is the advertising trade press which publishes the bulk of the
literature dealing with direct mail and catalogs. From advice on how to write
effective copy (Nelson, 1991; Rosenfield, 1996; Vernon, 1996; Rosenfield, 1997)
to descriptive statistics about the catalog business' characteristics and
expected growth (Rosenfield, 1995; "Catalog business forecast," 1997;
Rosenfield, 1999), publications like Advertising Age and Direct Marketing keep
their readers up-to-date regarding the state of the art of the catalog business.
However, no mention of the AG catalogs were found in the trade press.
CULTURAL STUDIES AND THE CIRCUIT OF CULTURE
I do not conceptualize cultural studies as a simple methodology of reading
cultural texts without any political grounding. One of the central-and most
fruitful-tensions in cultural studies is the one between its political and its
intellectual concerns. This tension produces both the impetus for new
theoretical advancements and the discomfort of traditional disciplines towards
cultural studies, which stands out as an interdisciplinary approach that
addresses relevant (and many times awkward) issues about culture and society
Richard Johnson (1986/87) argued that the project of cultural studies is "to
abstract, describe and reconstitute in concrete studies the social forms through
which human beings 'live', become conscious, sustain themselves subjectively"
(p. 45). In order to tackle this project, Johnson developed a model "with rich
intermediate categories, more layered than the existing general theories" (p.
45) in which he depicted a circuit of the production, circulation and
consumption of cultural products. The model was intended to serve, not only as a
blueprint or guide for how to "do" cultural studies, but also as a demonstration
that the cultural process is too complex to be explained by existing theories
that are limited to the explanation of one aspect and cannot be generalized to
include the other facets of the cultural process:
What if existing theories-and the modes of research associated with
them-actually express different sides of the same complex process? What if they
are all true, but only as far as they go, true for those parts of the process
which they have most clearly in view? What if they are all false or incomplete,
liable to mislead, in that they are only partial, and therefore cannot grasp the
process as a whole? (pp. 45-46).
His model specifies the different aspects, "moments," of the cultural process.
Different theoretical perspectives could then be used to study each of these
moments, which are distinct but, at the same time, dependent on the other
moments and essential to the totality of the cultural process, "[i]t follows
that if we are placed at one point of the circuit, we do not necessarily see
what is happening at others" (p. 46). Johnson specifies four moments:
production, texts, readings, and lived cultures. The model also gives importance
to the conditions for production, which Johnson places in a continuum between
public representations and private lives, and the conditions for readings,
placed along an abstract-concrete axis (see Figure 1).
Recently, Johnson's model has been reworked by a group of British cultural
studies scholars from The Open University and used as the framework for the
study of the Sony Walkman as a cultural product (du Gay et al., 1997). This
circuit of culture shares some of the main principles of Johnson's model.
Mainly, its depiction of the cultural process as a complex and interdependent
set of moments that are distinct, but not discrete, and the proposition that
their individual study only gives us a partial view of how the meanings
associated with a particular cultural product are produced, negotiated, and
contested. But this circuit of culture also differs in some important ways from
Johnson's model. First, it depicts five moments (instead of four),
representation, identity, production, consumption, and regulation. Second, these
moments are not presented as happening (or having to be studied) in any
particular order. Third, there are no axes or continuums governing the
conditions under which each of the moments exist (see Figure 2).
The circuit emphasizes the relationship between culture and meaning, which is
"constructed-given, produced-through cultural practices; it is not simply
'found' in things" (du Gay et al., 1997, p. 14). Meaning is transacted in each
of the circuit's moments. Representation refers to the production of meaning
through language. It "connects meaning and language to culture" (Hall, 1997a, p.
15). This moment in the circuit highlights the symbolic underpinnings of
culture. Identity alludes to how a particular cultural product-text, object,
practice-acts as a marker that identifies a particular group. In other words,
how meanings create an identity. Cultural products are also encoded with
meanings in their production process. They are produced in ways that make them
meaningful. These encoding processes constitute the moment of production in the
circuit of culture. But meaning is also produced when we make use of the
cultural product in our everyday life. Consumption looks at what the product
means to those who actually use it. It involves the production of meaning
through the incorporation of the product in our daily life. Finally, the circuit
of culture examines the impact that a cultural product has upon the regulation
of cultural life.
Cultural studies has its share of opponents and critics. I believe that the
circuit of culture addresses criticism that expresses discomfort with the
emphasis on textual analyses over the study of audiences (Jensen & Pauly, 1997)
and annoyance at the perception that cultural studies focuses on cultural
consumption rather than on cultural production (Garnham, 1997). The circuit of
culture provides cultural studies with a blueprint for research that does not
privilege texts over audiences or vice-versa. Nor does it assign more importance
to production than consumption, or the other way around. It understands cultural
analysis as the integral study of these moments. "[I]t is in a combination of
processes-in their articulation-that the beginnings of an explanation can be
found" (du Gay et al., 1997, p. 3).
Language plays a central role in the production and exchange of meanings. Its
signs and symbols stand for objects and ideas. According to Hall (1997a),
theories of representation can be grouped into three general categories. First,
reflective theories which assert that language is a mirror, reflecting meanings
that are inherent to persons, ideas, and cultural products. Second, intentional
theories which argue that meaning is imposed by speakers and authors, who are
the only source of meaning. Third, constructionist theories that separate the
material from the symbolic, arguing that it is the symbolic (not the material)
which conveys meaning; that is, meaning is constructed using "representational
systems" such as language. Cultural studies and, in consequence, the circuit of
culture use constructionist theories to explain and analyze the moment of
Ferdinand de Saussure (1974), whose work in linguistics underpins
structuralism, developed a theory of representation as construction. According
to him, the sign must be analyzed as two elements, the signifier-the word(s) or
image(s)-and the signified, the concept or idea triggered by the signifier. The
link between these two elements is arbitrary. Furthermore, signs acquire meaning
in terms of their difference with other signs. Saussure also divided language
into langue and parole. Langue is the rules and conventions that organizes
language, while parole is the individual utterances. More importantly, parole is
determined by langue. This is structuralism's main insight, i.e.: structure
makes meaning possible.
Claude L vi-Strauss (1968) applied Saussure's ideas to anthropology. His' most
important contribution to the study of culture is his analysis of myths as
parole and his finding that these have similar underlying structures (langue).
Roland Barthes' work also focused on myths. His theoretical essay "Myth today"
argues that myth functions as a system of representation, adding a second level
of signification to Saussure's signifier/signified that is naturalized and taken
[W]hat allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it
as a semiological system but as an inductive one. Where there is only
equivalence, he sees a kind of causal process: the signifier and the signified
have, in his eyes, a natural relationship. This confusion can be expressed
otherwise: any semiological system is a system of values; now the myth consumer
takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system,
whereas it is but a semiological system (Barthes, 1973, p. 142).
The idea of an underlying structure that determines meaning is rejected by
post-structuralists who emphasize the slippery nature of meaning. Jacques
Derrida (1973) argues that language is endless iterability. Meaning is "always
deferred, never fully present, always both absent and present" (Storey, 1993, p.
86). It is scattered along the chain of signifiers. Words contain traces of
other words that preceded them in the chain and by their context which are also
sets of chains of signifiers. Derrida draws on Nietzsche's critique of the
assumption that language reflects the world and gives us access to "truth,"
"truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions" (Nietzsche, 1990,
p. 891). In sum, Derrida argues that language is always ambiguous and
metaphorical; therefore, always in need of interpretation.
Nietzsche also influenced Foucault's work, who also rejected the notion of an
universal and timeless truth. Instead, Foucault argued that there are "regimes
of truth" sustained by discursive formations, texts and practices, that
construct meaning while supporting certain institutional patterns and a common
worldview. He also took from Nietzsche the view that knowledge works as a weapon
of power (Storey, 1993). For him, discourse is the means by which institutions
brandish power through processes of definition and exclusion that are, in
Truth is not outside power [...] Each society has its regime of truth, its
'general politics' of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts
and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enable one to
distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned
[...] the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true
(Foucault, 1980, p. 131).
Foucault's work on representation focuses not on language but on discourse as a
system of representation. His starting point is the statement, which is not a
grammatical sentence or logical proposition. Statements are utterances that
establish rules and generate discourse because they contain the possibilities of
their own content and create boundaries for it, setting the conditions of
knowledge. Discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic. That is, meaning is
constructed within discourse, which defines and produces knowledge, and governs
the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about. It also influences how
ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. Foucault
then, opposes the commonly-held idea that discourse facilitates the exchange of
knowledge but does not create it. For him, author, meaning and knowledge are a
function of discourse, not its source. In this way, he argues that discourse
should be examined as a representational practice, a constitutive action, and
not as a reflection of reality.
Two representational practices merit mention special attention in regards to
the topic of this study: stereotyping and advertising. Both practices link
representation to identity. Stereotyping is (sadly) a widespread
representational practice that "reduces people to a few, simple, essential
characteristics, which are represented as fixed by Nature" (Hall, 1997b, p.
257). It is a good example of how power and knowledge are linked in a
Foucauldian sense. It is also an instance that shows the closeness between
representation and identity. Hall (1997b) argues that stereotyping occurs where
there are power inequalities which work to accentuate differences that are
presented as dividing what is "normal" than what is not. Stereotyping is
particularly pervasive whenever ethnic, national, class, and gender differences
Advertising, viewed by most as a communication practice, is really both an
economic and a representational practice. It has an ubiquitous place in our
society. Raymond Williams (1993) argued that it has become "the official art of
capitalist society: it is what 'we' put up in 'our' streets and use to fill up
to half of 'our' newspapers and magazines" (p. 334). Its goal is to sell a
particular product. To do this, advertising represents the product in a way
that, first, appeals to the consumer, and then convinces him or her to buy.
"Advertising is the cultural language which speaks on behalf of the product.
Advertising makes commodities speak. It must address the buyer. It must create
an identification between the customer and the product" (du Gay et al., 1997, p.
25). In this sense also, advertising is a representational practice with
particular characteristics. At the same time that it represents the product as
appealing, advertising constructs a link between the potential buyer and the
product. This link is identification through which advertising convinces us that
we are the kind of people who would have that particular product.
The language of advertising-and representation in general-operates as much on
fantasy and desire as it does on rational choices and so-called 'real' needs.
The people in the advertisements are therefore not a realistic representation of
ourselves but an imaginary one. [...] In other words, they work by engaging with
our idealized self-images and our unspoken desires (emphasis in the original,
Sometimes the language of advertising reflects social identities that have been
already formed, e.g.: housewives. At other times, advertising constructs the
identity through representation at the same time that it also represents the
product to be sold. In this sense, advertising tells the consumer "what sorts of
identities we can become-and how" (p. 39).
Summarizing, the circuit of culture underscores constructionist theories of
representation which hold that meaning is not inherent in cultural products.
Instead it is constructed through language (linguistics, semiotics) and/or
discourse (Foucault). The latter ties knowledge to power bringing about issues
related to the politics of representation. Stereotyping and advertising are
conspicuous representational practices that work through difference and
identification, and that show the links between representation and identity.
At its most basic and intuitive level, identity tells us who we are and where
we are placed in time and space. This could be construed as a fairly simple and
static concept. In other words, identity can be seen as a fixed notion, we are
who we are. But the circuit of culture tells us something different. Identities
create meanings while they are produced, consumed and regulated within culture
(Woodward, 1997). In a sense, the more we look into the question of identity,
the more complicated we realize it is.
Issues of identity are always underpinned by the tension between essentialism
and anti-essentialism. The former looks at identity as fixed, and therefore,
based on nature (race, gender), or based on "an essentialist view of history"
(p. 12). Non-essentialist views see identity as ever-changing, based on symbolic
characteristics that attempt to differentiate in order to identify. For
instance, advertising tells us how the consumption of a particular product
influences our identity. Because identity is linked to representation, "identity
is constructed in and through language" (Sarup, 1996, p. 47), then we must
acknowledge that identity is inextricably related to issues of power, since the
power to define who is included in a certain identifiable group is not equally
distributed in society.
There is an important psychoanalytic dimension in the study of identity, which
is best exemplified by the work of Jacques Lacan (1977), who argued that there
is no unitary identity (or self). It is always split and produced through
language. He believed that who I am depends on what is other than myself,
rendering an "I" that is discursively constructed. That is, our identity is
based on a lack, "manque tre," on what we are not.
Designating differences is essential to the construction of identity. The
differences are marked through the use of classificatory systems that organize
the world and produce a set of meanings shared in each particular culture.
Different attempts at explaining how this occurs are the source of different
theoretical developments in the area of identity research. For instance,
Althusser (1971) argued that ideologies "hail" individual as subjects.
Identities, then, exist through ideology because it constitutes individuals as
subjects. Derrida argues that a set of binary oppositions can be found inscribed
within identities. Binary oppositions are never neutral. One pole of the binary,
he argues, is usually the dominant one, the one which includes the other within
its field of operations. There is always a relation of power between the two
poles. Within binary oppositions "we are not dealing with [...] peaceful
coexistence [...] but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms
governs [...] the other or has the upper hand" (Derrida, 1972, p. 41).
Ernesto Laclau draws on the work of Derrida, Foucault and Lacan to reject
essentialist perspectives on identity. In opposition to Marxists and
neo-Marxists such as Althusser, Laclau argues that identities are not merely the
product of class. Identities are always partial and incomplete, multiple and
mobil. Laclau's theories produce a "shift from a politics of class identity to a
politics of difference" (Sarup, 1996, p. 57). Identities are dislocated because
they "depend upon an outside which both denies that identity and provides its
condition of possibility at one and the same time" (Laclau, 1990, p. 39). In
consequence, power is always inextricably linked to the relation between
identity and the difference that supports that identity.
Our identities are particularly influenced by the idea of nationality. Benedict
Anderson (1983) argued that the nation is an immagined community constituted by
shared elements: history, myths, land (or claims to it), and culture. Today,
the idea of nation is increasingly blurred. In consequence, cultural identity
has become the preferred locus of analysis of scholars interested in the fluid
and multiple nature of identity. Hall (1990) argues that cultural identity is
always a project in the making. He synthesizes Anderson's and Laclau's
respective theories, arguing that cultural identities are comprised of two kinds
of ingredients, shared elements and points of difference.
In sum, identity is not fixed, it is socially and symbolically constituted. It
involves "symbolic marking" (Woodward, 1997, p. 12) that denotates difference
and, at the same time, emphasizes shared characteristics. Identity is always
linked to power.
Textual analysis recognizes a fundamental assumption of this study, i.e.: that
meaning is a social production and, as such, is embedded in issues of power.
Fiske (1987) argues that textual analysis acknowledges that
[T]he distribution of power in society is paralleled by the distribution of
meanings in texts, and that struggles for social power are paralleled by
semiotic struggles for meanings. Every text and every reading has a social and
therefore a political dimension, which is to be found partly in the structure of
the text itself and partly in the relation of the reading subject to that text
The method is different from content analysis. Recurrence of patterns is not
quantified, it is rather considered and analyzed as "pointers to latent
meanings" (Hall, 1975, p. 15). Position, placement, tone and allusions are also
considered in the analysis. Ultimately, the object of the analysis is not the
meanings of the text, but rather the construction of those meanings through the
text (LesterMassman, 1989).
In the "Introduction" to Paper voices: The popular press and social change,
1935-1965, Stuart Hall (1975) explains textual analysis and its usefulness. It
is important to point out that the method is as evidence-based as any
quantitative textual methodology. The evidence is precisely the text.
Therefore, the textual analyst should present enough textual material quoted
directly to persuade readers that the evidence has been thoroughly examined and
Textual analysis is an interpretive method. In consequence, the role of the
critic/interpreter is crucial. The Frankfurt School theorists believed that
criticism is a necessary vantage point from which to evaluate culture and that
scholars could, therefore, "judge." Poststructuralists, on the other hand,
maintain that cultural critics have no reliable ground from which to criticize.
I believe that every research, criticism, "reading," takes a stand and we must
acknowledge that. I also agree with Condit's argument that critical analysis
should be rhetorical in the sense that it should be as local as possible,
mindful of its topic and its audience (1989). Regarding our interpretations, we
need to acknowledge that while we do not know all the possible understandings
(meanings) that could be derived from a particular text, we can make arguments
about the kinds of meanings that can be in the text. This in no way should be
interpreted as our attempt to "tell" people which is "the" meaning of the text.
As Dow (1996) argues, we look for the possibility of meaning in the text, not
for its discovery or revelation.
The historical conditions of production and of consumption of the text must be
considered in every textual analysis. The text is not the end in textual
analysis, it is the means by which we study a signification process, a
representation of reality.This process of "decentering" the text (Johnson,
1986/1987)-of studying the text as a process- is what distinguishes textual
analysis from qualitative content analysis, in which the text remains at the
center of the analysis. In qualitative content analysis, content is classified
through open coding categories. Meaning is found solely in the text itself and
not in the processes of its production and consumption. In other words, the
conditions surrounding the text-other texts, historical, political, economic and
cultural circumstances-are simply the context for qualitative content analysis.
While in textual analysis they provide the ideological and mythic structure used
to create the dominant reading.
The text analyzed in this study includes two and a half years of Pleasant
Company's catalogs (Fall 1996-Winter 1999). However, all catalogs since 1995,
all the books of The American Girl Collection and The American Girl Library,
plus a year of American Girl magazine were also read in order to provide a more
thorough "soak" and understanding of the representation process.
According to Hall (1975), the method calls for three distinctive stages: (1) A
"long preliminary soak" (p. 15) in the text, which allows the analyst to focus
on particular issues while preserving "the big picture." (2) Close reading of
the chosen text and preliminary identification of discursive strategies and
themes. (3) Interpretation of the findings within the larger framework of the
study. The objective throughout was to find the catalogs' "economy of meaning"
(Lidchi, 1997, p. 166). That is, how meaning is produced through language that
represents these dolls and related products, and how these meanings are
associated with a particular identity: American girls.
REPRESENTATION AND IDENTITY: TEXTUAL ANALYSIS
[E]ven the most mundane object can be endowed with value and thus be transformed
into a vehicle of contested meaning (Lidchi, 1997, p. 155).
In the circuit of culture, the moment/site of representation looks at how
language, images, and signs stand for-represent-things (objects, activities).
Thus, representation is an active process in which meanings are created.
"Metaphors of glass" (Glasser, 1996, p. 784) cannot explain representation. It
is not a mirror-like reflection of the world through language, nor is it a
window that allows us to see only a section of the world. Representation
constructs meaning by connecting the world, language, and our "available stock
of meanings" (Hall, 1975, p. 12). By performing these connections,
representation does not reflect or frame the world, it constitutes the world. In
other words, objects and activities do not have an inherent meaning, they
acquire it partly through the language (words and images) used to refer to them.
The following sections look at how the AG catalogs and books represent Pleasant
Company's products. Since this merchandise is advertised almost exclusively
through catalogs, these constitute the main site for the study of
representation. Although I read AG catalogs dating back to the Spring of 1995,
in this study I focus on the catalogs published from Fall of 1996 to Winter of
1999. I preface the analysis with a description of the catalogs and books. This
is followed by the study of how Pleasant Company represents itself and its
audience in these catalogs and how these representations render an
extra-ordinary image of their products that separates them from similar
merchandise found in stores. The analysis continues with the examination of how
the AG dolls (and related products) are presented in the catalogs, focusing on
the visual and verbal languages that depict these products and how they
construct an American past and depict an American present that convey a version
of American girlhood, in particular, and of the United States, in general. In
doing so, the catalogs also construct an American girl identity with empowering
In order to present the textual evidence as smoothly and clearly as possible,
I will not refer to AG catalogs and books using the APA standards. Instead, I
will use the following conventions: for catalogs, (season year, page number),
e.g.: (Spring 1996, p. 1); for books, (Title, page number), e.g.: (Meet
Felicity, p. 3). Text appearing unchanged in every issue of the catalog will
not have a reference.
These catalogs are sleek, 9 1/4" x 11 1/2", publications printed on glossy
paper in which the use of photographs, art, color, and typographical devices
efficiently project the content, eliciting a feeling of elegance and rendering a
pleasant reading and/or browsing experience. The catalogs arrive, roughly, at a
monthly rate. Instead of a date, month/year, the catalogs are identified by
season and year, e.g.: Spring 96, Holiday 97, etc. There is no clear pattern in
the catalog's publication rates since there have been seasons without catalogs
and seasons with multiple catalogs. The number of catalogs usually peaks in the
Spring and Holiday seasons.
All front covers feature a headline and one or two teasers that refer to new
products. These are placed on top of the bleed photograph. The headline,
"Pleasant Company for American girls!" was recently changed to "American Girl"
(Holiday 1998 catalogs). We can classify the covers into three typeS,
according to the photo they display. First, covers that show a girl reading one
of the books accompanied by a doll. In these pictures the girl usually resembles
the doll. Both of them wear matching outfits which, in turn, match the cover of
the book being read by the girl. For example, a brunette girl has Samantha
sitting in her lap as if both are reading the book Samantha's Surprise
(Samantha's Christmas story). Both girl and doll wear the same hairstyle and the
"cranberry party dress" which is Samantha's Christmas outfit (Holidaya 1997).
The second type of covers features one doll and several of her accessories set
in a background reminiscent of one of the stories, e.g.: Kirsten, dressed in her
winter outfit and waving at us, stands inside her family's cabin in front of a
window where snow has accumulated and through which a glimpse of a winter
landscape can be seen.To her right is her "trestle table and chairs." Dishes,
some berries and Kirsten's "Saint Lucia tray" sit on the table (Holidaya 1996).
The third type of covers depict several dolls, usually AG of Today dolls, in a
"realistic" situation. For instance, the fall 1998 catalog had three AG of Today
wearing Halloween outfits. The dolls seem to be trick-or-treating since they are
holding candy-filled halloween baskets. In the dark background, the shapes of
houses-with lighted windows-can be seen in the distance (Fall 1998).
The inside of the front cover and the first page of the catalog always form a
double-page spread in which the left side has a photograph that includes some of
the elements portrayed in the front cover. For instance, the double-page spread
of the above-mentioned catalog depicting Kirsten in its cover (Holidaya 1996),
features a girl, dressed like Kirsten, playing with the doll in this setup. This
photo presents a different, less close, perspective, therefore, we can see that
the background is one of Kirsten's "Scenes & Settings." On the floor lies a
copy of Changes for Kirsten (her winter story). The background of the setting is
a Christmas tree. The front cover-with its smiling, waving Kirsten-gives us the
impression that Kirsten is alive. When we turn the page, we realize that it is
also the setting of a girl's game. In this way, the inside picture intensifies
the message from the front cover. This is a visual tactic repeated in every AG
The right side of the double-page spread has a message signed by Pleasant T.
Rowland. Its content changes from time to time. Back in 1996 the message
described the line of historical dolls in broad terms and delineated the
company's mission. Currently, the message is prefaced by the phrase "[a]n
important message to parents," which unmistakably declares its intended
audience, and promotes specific products or events:
[W]ith the opening of American Girl Place in Chicago, we've created a
destination to dream of-three floors filled with all of the things girls love.
There, your American girl can discover the magic of live theater at a
performance of The American Girls Revue, enjoy fun and fancy dining at the
elegant Cafe, shop for books, dolls, dresses, and other delights at the
boutiques, and get her picture on the cover of a souvenir issue of American Girl
magazine (Winter 1999, p. 1).
This page also contains a table of contents, which uses logos and page numbers
as pointers to the regular sections of the catalog: The American Girl
Collection, American Girl of Today, and Bitty Baby. The American Girl
Collection, the line of six historical dolls/characters, is the first regular
section of the catalog. All the section's pages are trimmed in burgundy, which
also colors the headlines and sub-heads. Its logo features the faces of the six
historical dolls placed in historical chronological order. Each face is inside a
burgundy medallion, connoting ideas like "tradition" and "antique." The
medallions are placed on top of a burgundy-trimmed block containing the words,
"The American Girl Collection."
The section begins with a double-page spread that includes small-sized
renderings of the six characters with their respective name, year and
description, e.g.: "Molly 1944 A lovable schemer and dreamer." These six images
surround the main text which describes the collection and its purpose. The two
pages also include small photographs of the six boxed sets of books, and a large
photograph depicting either an historical doll, or a girl reading with her doll.
Each historical doll/character has its own sub-section with identical layouts.
These sub-sections are presented in historical order: Felicity, Josefina,
Kirsten, Addy, Samantha and Molly. Each starts with a vertical double-page
spread that displays a picture of an actual-size doll (18"), wearing an outfit
and accessories that match the cover of her Meet______ book, which is also shown
in the page accompanied by an abstract that hints, but does not give away, the
book's plot. Copy specifies the product's features (including the doll) and
situates it in a particular historical period:
Felicity comes dressed in a flower-striped gown edged in ruffles. Underpants
were not worn in 1774, but under the gown there is a simple shift. She wears
white wool stockings and black shoes with fancy buckles.
Her shoes are "single-lasted," which means they are just alike and will fit on
either foot. In colonial times people switched their shoes from one foot to the
other so they would wear evenly! (emphasis in the original).
Throughout the catalog, emphasized text, in boldfaced italics, highlights the
names of the articles promoted. In this case, Felicity comes with a gown, shift,
stockings and shoes. Her first book, Meet Felicity, is also part of the package
(doll and hardcover Meet ________ book, $88; doll and paperback book, $82). Her
accessories ($20) are sold separately.
Pages displaying and describing each of the doll/character's books, along with
the accessories and outfits pertaining to each story, follow the vertical
spread. School, Christmas, birthday, summer, and winter stories are presented in
this fashion. The photographs show the doll, wearing an outfit that matches the
book's front cover and her accessories, i.e.: desks, tables, chairs, silverware,
books, etc. The copy describes each item linking them to the story. It also
groups the items under a subhead and informs us of its order code and price:
When Josefina went to pick herbs and berries for making wool dyes, she packed a
hearty picnic lunch. Fill the pottery canteen with water, and load the checked
wool bag with a homegrown feast: a bright cloth to spread on the ground, two
corn tortillas, a yellow squash, a bunch of onions, fresh goat cheese, and a
plump, ripe plum. Yum! JSAL $18 (emphasis in the original).
Each of the dolls/characters' sub-sections ends with a double-page spread with
the headline, "_________'s Treasures & Collections" showing the doll's bed
($40-$98), bedside table ($25-$38), "nighttime necessities" ($18-$20) extra
outfits that do not match any of the stories ($16-$24), nightgown ($18-$20),
extra shoes, socks and ribbons, and furniture to store her outfits (Felicity's
"clothes press," Josefina's "chest," Kirsten's, Addy's, Samantha's and Molly's
different versions of a "trunk," $150-$175). The catalog labels all these
accessories and furniture as "historically accurate reproductions appropriate
for children 8 and over."
The American Girls Collection section ends with a variable number of pages (two
to ten) that advertise diverse articles such as doll dress patterns, stationery
sets, postcards, hair-care and skin-care kits, a CD-ROM and "Scenes & Settings.
These pages also feature girls' outfits that match the dolls':
Afternoon Tea Dress
Dressed in pleats and plaid, Samantha always looked prim and proper for her
afternoon tea with Grandmary. You'll look perfect, too, in this pretty cotton
dress checked in rose and gray with burgundy and white trim at the collar and
cuffs. A heart locket of antiqued brass hangs from the bow. Imported. SM600 $80
(emphasis in the original).
The next section in the catalog is devoted to the American Girl of Today.
These pages, trimmed in purple, feature headlines, sub-heads and emphasized text
in a variety of bright colored sans serif type which gives the pages a
sparkling, modern image that contrasts with the traditional burgundy and black
roman type of the historical collection section. The logo also contrasts with
the one representing the historical collection. It is a dynamic, multicolored
shape of a girl placed on a black background. Whereas the AG Collection's logo
showed the faces and established the chronological order of the six historical
dolls, this logo is simply a colorful, modern, non-descript ageless, raceless
shape with no distinctive features which signifies that any girl is an AG of
This part of the catalog is organized in a similar fashion as the American Girl
Collection section. It also begins with a vertical double-page spread that
displays an actual-size doll wearing an outfit and accessories which are sold
separately. These dolls ($82) come with a 56-page special issue of AG magazine,
a blank book to write her own unique story," a writer's guide, and a stencil
"for fancy lettering." The next two pages display 20 possible faces in which the
AG of Today can be ordered. These represent different combinations of skin, eye,
and hair color. There are also different shapes of eye, nose, and mouth.
Even though the AG of Today do not have books, their section in the catalog is
organized similarly to the historical collection. Outfits and accessories are
presented in separate pages for school (cheerleading, soccer and girl scouts are
also featured), the holidays (includes Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year,
as well as Christmas), birthday (a cookout with burgers and chips), summer
(featuring horseback riding, swimming and camping), and winter (skating,
sledding, skiing, and even cast and crutches for the injured). The products'
descriptions are rich in contemporary images:
No need to pack a sack for your American Girl-it's hot-lunch day. Load her tray
with a slice of pizza, a garden salad, half a banana, a carton of milk, and a
peanut butter cookie. Don't forget the napkin, straw, and "spork"! GSAL $12
Computer Desk & Chair
Set your American Girl's computer on this sturdy desk so she can do her
homework. There's even a pencil tray built right in. A chair with a soft swivel
seat and comfy backrest is the perfect place to sit and surf the Net. GSF $40
(italicized words appear in boldfaced, colored sans-serif type in the original).
"Slumber Party Fun!" is AG of Today's equivalent to the historical collection's
"Treasures & Collections" pages. It portrays a slumber party scene in which four
AG of Today dolls wearing different styles of sleepwear are surrounded by a bunk
bed ($68), nightstand ($32), sleeping bag ($18), and a school locker to store
the outfits ($110). The AG of Today section ends with several pages that display
merchandise for girls, matching outfits and contemporary accessories like
sleeping bags ($50), backpacks ($35), and slumber party kits. These pages also
advertise the AG Library books ($4.95-$9.95) and AG magazine subscriptions
($19.95 for one year, 6 issues).
The Bitty Baby collection constitutes the third regular section of the
catalogs. Shorter (6 pages) than the two previous sections, its pages are
trimmed in red, which is also the color of the headlines and subheads. This
collection enables younger girls to start assimilating the idea of
ethnically-diverse dolls with related books and merchandise.
In addition to the three regular sections, some AG catalogs have AG Gear
sections displaying clothes for girls. The section, organized by type of
clothing, e.g.: "All decked out in denim" featured denim jumpers, skirts, pants
and jackets (Holidayc 1998, pp. 98-99), features copy that is a straightforward
description of the clothes, "printed tee in teal or midnight blue. Stretch poly
velour. Imported. S, M, L, XL RXTS $28" (p. 106). However, through headlines
and photographs, the pages come across as vibrant and contemporary. The girls
who model these outfits are from diverse ethnic backgrounds and wear broad
smiles while they, seemingly, participate in activities such as trimming a
Christmas tree with a popcorn garland (pp. 102-103) or washing their pet
dog(Springb 1998, pp. 78-79).
The American Girls Collection
Pleasant Company Publications publishes two lines of books, the American Girls
Collection and the American Girl Library. The first collection is organized by
doll/character. Each one has six books, a family story, Meet ________, a school
story, ________ Learns a Lesson, a Christmas story, ________'s Surprise, a
birthday (spring) story, Happy Birthday ________!, a summer story, ________
Saves the Day, and a winter story, Changes for ________. These 60- to 70-pages
books can be acquired in paperback ($5.95) or hardcover ($12.95) versions
through the catalog or in bookstores.
All the books look the same. Their covers feature an artist's rendition of the
character placed on top of a rule whose color identifies each character (green
for Felicity, red for Josefina, sepia for Kirsten, orange for Addy, burgundy for
Samantha, blue for Molly). The book's title is always below this rule
accompanied by the type of story, its place in the character's book sequence and
the year in which the story takes place.
Each story is told in four to five chapters sprinkled with small and large
color illustrations. The storylines are entertaining and easy to follow. Each
one presents a conflict that is solved at the end of the book. For example, in
Kirsten Learns a Lesson, Kirsten-a Swedish immigrant-faces the situation of
going to an American school without speaking English very well. By the end of
the story, Kirsten's English has improved and she has earned the friendship of
her schoolmates. But each character's series of six books also presents a larger
overarching conflict that underpins the six plots and is only resolved in the
last book. For instance, Samantha is an orphan without siblings being raised by
her wealthy grandmother. Her lack of a family is the overarching conflict, which
is solved in Changes for Samantha when her favorite aunt, Cornelia, marries and
adopts her and her friend Nellie-who is also an orphan and poor-along with
Nellie's two sisters. The book ends with Samantha saying "I'm the luckiest
person in the world. At last, at last, I have a real family of my own!"
(emphasis in the original, Changes for Samantha, p. 60).
The dolls/characters are consistently portrayed as resourceful, good-hearted
girls who learn from their mistakes. The plots set the girls' everyday life
against a historical background which is linked to the story. In Molly Learns a
Lesson, Molly's teacher organizes a "lend-a-hand" contest to help the war
effort. In Felicity Learns a Lesson, Felicity's father, who owns a store,
refuses to sell or drink tea in protest to the king's tax on tea. In Happy
Birthday, Samantha!, she accidentally finds out that her aunt Cornelia is a
suffragist. In short, the books are historical fiction.
Each book's story is followed by the section "A Peek into the Past," a
supplement to the book's plot, that provides background information about the
U.S. in the year in which the main story takes place. "A Peek..." 's topic
matches the story's topic:
Meet Samantha America in 1904
Samantha Learns a Lesson School in 1904
Samantha's Surprise Christmas in 1904
Happy Birthday Samantha! Growing up in 1904
Samantha Saves the Day America Outdoors in 1904
Changes for Samantha Changes for America
By constantly relating to the character, "A Peek..." describes in broad strokes
how life was in the United States in the character's time. The section is
peppered with photographs and images that illustrate the text's content. For
example, under an old sepia photo of a family riding an antique car, the text
Wherever turn-of-the-century Americans looked, they saw a changing world.
Automobiles were taking the place of horses even on country roads. By the time
Samantha was nineteen years old, the Ford Motor Company had built over a million
cars-all of them black! (Changes for Samantha, p. 62).
All books have a detachable page that holds a picture of the six dolls over
text that invites the reader to read more books, which are "only the beginning.
Our lovable dolls and their beautiful clothes and accessories make the stories
in The American Girls Collection come alive." There is also a detachable,
no-postage-necessary, post card to request AG catalogs.
It is important to mention that there are two versions of Josefina's books:
English and Spanish. The English books have Spanish words in the text, which are
translated in a "Glossary of Spanish Words" at the end of each book. The
glossary also includes easy-to-follow pronunciation instructions, e.g.: "gracias
(GRAH-see-ahs)-thank you" (Happy Birthday Josefina!, p. 68). Her books contain a
"Meet the advisory board" list with the names and titles of the people who
"authenticated Josefina's stories." The list includes history and Spanish
professors, curators, librarians, historians and archive directors, most of
them with hispanic names. In the Spanish version of Meet Josefina, As! es
Josefina, the title of "A Peek into the Past" is "Nuevo Mexico en 1824" [New
Mexico in 1824] (p. 78). whereas the English version is titled "America in
1824." Furthermore, although both version's contents are identical, the Spanish
books uses the term "Estados Unidos" [United States] instead of "America" which
is the word used in the English version, an acknowledgment of the convention
among most Spanish speakers that "America" refers to the entire American
continent constituted by North, Central and South America.
Even though these 36 books constitute the heart of the American Girl
Collection, craftbooks, cookbooks and theater kits also published by
doll/character, supplement the novels. There are also five Teacher's Guides,
which are the only products in the entire Pleasant Company collection that are
addressed to girls and boys. The guides use each character's book sequence as
the basis for language arts and social studies lessons and activities. They
provide teachers with contextual information about each time period, summaries
of the books' plots, ideas for "hands-on history," a map of the character's
"world," and a bibliography for each historical period.
The American Girl Collection of books is an uniform, well-programmed line of
books, in which attention has been paid to detail and to producing books that
provide,both entertainment and a selling vehicle for Pleasant Company's dolls
American Girl Library
This line of books ($3.95-$9.95) is not as programmed and patterned as the AG
Collection. The books are not numbered, nor do they seem to follow a sequence.
Their presentation is colorful, modern and diverse since they have different
sizes and shapes. Their topics are varied, but they could all be classified
under the umbrella of "advice" or "help" books: Groom your room: Terrific
Touches to Brighten Your Bedroom, Oops! The Manners Guide for Girls, The Care
and Keeping of Friends, Great Girl Food. Many of the books feature material from
the AG magazine that has been collected over the years:
Inspired by a popular feature in American Girl magazine, these are the tips and
tricks you can't find anywhere else! AGLE $5.95 (emphasis in the original,
Winter 98, p. 79).
These books are even easier to read than the AG Collection. They are profusely
illustrated with drawings, not photographs, which include girls in all sizes,
shapes and colors. Many of the books also double as activity books:
Birthday Cards For Girls to Make
Twelve clever cards to cut out, color, and decorate with glamorous, glittery
trimmings that are all included. AGLB $9.95 (emphasis in the original,Winter 98,
The books tackle many aspects of a girl's life, from Super Slumber Parties to a
secret diary that is also a scrapbook, Pages and Pockets.The collection, like
the rest of Pleasant Company's products, makes no qualms about the fact that
they target girls and that its objective is to help them, Bright Ideas from
Girls, for Girls. The latest book in the collection, The Care and Keeping of
You, is potentially its most daring and controversial. Profusely illustrated
with drawings that depict girls in all shapes and from different ethnic
backgrounds, the book shies away from discussing sex, but explores subjects like
the care of dental braces, acne, deodorants, shaving, how to buy a bra ,
shaving, eating disorders and menstruation:
Too big? Too small? No matter how they're built many girls feel their breasts
just aren't right. And that's plain wrong! (p. 50).
Lots of people worry about their weight and wish they could be thinner, but when
a girl becomes so focused on losing weight that she stops eating normally, she
may have an eating disorder. Living with this kind of illness can be very hard.
A girl's fierce desire to be thin can quickly spiral into dangerous habits and
behavior that she can't control. No matter how thin she becomes, she looks in
the mirror and sees a fat girl. Without help, she can become very sick. She can
do permanent damage to her body, or even die. There are two main eating
disorders: anorexia (an-uh-REX-ee-uh) and bulimia (buh-LEE-mee-uh) (emphasis in
the original, p. 62).
Getting your period. There are probably no other words that will make you feel
as excited, scared, or just plain confused. [...] At first, the idea of getting
periods may seem, well-gross. But periods are a sign that your body is healthy
and working properly (emphasis in the original, p. 70).
I found this book especially helpful for girls. Its conversational style and
colorful presentation optimizes the delivery of the information it contains.
"Pleasant Company" and "You"
Pleasant T. Rowland's message in each catalog spells out her company's mission
"to provide girls with beautiful books, dolls, and pastimes that celebrate the
experience of growing up as an American girl" (Falla 1996, p. 1). Although
Pleasant Company is represented through the entire catalog, Rowland's message is
a good starting point for the analysis of how the text represents her company.
These messages are signed by Rowland signalling, in this way, a personal
one-to-one tone in her communication with readers. Her signature is accompanied
by the caption:
Pleasant Rowland, founder and president of Pleasant Company is a noted educator
and author of children's reading and language arts materials used in schools
throughout the nation (Winter 1998, p. 1).
Her authority as an educator is established and used as both framework and
justification for the creation of the products:
As an educator, I wanted to give girls an understanding of America's past and a
sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday. Out of this
desire, The American Girls Collection was born (Winter 1998, p. 1).
In this way, her authority (and the company's) are established and their
connection to education is highlighted, leading to the conclusion that these
products are somehow instructional. This is confirmed in later catalogs where
Ms. Rowland squarely positions her products as educational, "[a]t American Girl,
creating quality products that educate and entertain lies at the very heart of
our mission" (emphasis added, Winter 1999, p. 1).
But Pleasant Company is tied not only to education, it is linked to "you." The
catalogs direct their message to "you," a reader also constructed through the
text, an "American girl:"
At Pleasant Company, we think being an American girl is great-something to stand
up and shout about. Something to celebrate! On each and every page of this
catalogue, you'll see it's true. Everything we do is a celebration of you!"
(emphasis added, Falla 1996, p. 1).
The American Girls Collection is for you if you love to curl up with a good
book. It's for you if you like to play with dolls and act out stories. [...]
Meet Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly, six lively American
girls who lived long ago. [...] You'll see that some things in their lives were
very different from yours. But others, like families, friendships, and feelings,
haven't changed through they years. These are the important things that American
girls will always share (emphasis added, Holidayb 1997, p. 1).
You're the inspiration for a whole new line-a collection of simply great stuff
that celebrates who you are today, and what you love to do. In fact, it's even
named after you-American Girl! (emphasis added, Falla 1996, p. 66).
Using a simple model of communication, we observe that a communication process
is established between Pleasant Company, the source, and "you=American girl,"
the receiver. The communication channel-the catalog-presents its message,
selling AG products, always in reference to the receiver:"[y]our Felicity doll
has snappy green eyes that open and close" (emphasis in the original , Holidayb
1997, p. 2), "[h]elp Josefina get ready for bed with her blue-and-white Puebla
basin and cotton towel" (emphasis in the original, p. 13).
The catalogs establish a special relationship between "you=American girl" and
Pleasant Company, which becomes "we" in the text. According to the catalogs,
this company listens to girls and is responsive to their needs:
[...]letters urged us to expand our vision from the past to the present [...].
Our response is an entirely new collection-The American Girl of Today (emphasis
added, Falla 1996, p. 1).
Then girls told us they wanted us to help them address the challenges of growing
up in the 90s. The American Girl of Today line [...] was our answer. (emphasis
added, Fallb 1997, p. 1).
Lately, girls have been telling us they're bored with their well-worn jeans and
baggy sweatshirts. [...] We heard their message loud and clear! Our response? A
great new batch of American Girl Gear for back-to-school (emphasis added, Fallb
1997, p. 1).
For more than a decade, we've been the company that American girls trust. When
they speak, we listen, because we believe that what they say is important
(emphasis added, Fallb 1997, p. 1).
In this way, Pleasant Company represents its relationship to its
clients-American girls-as unique. The company privileges itself as the
repository of the girls' trust, suggesting that not everybody assigns importance
to what girls have to say. Even product development is portrayed as a response
to girls' needs instead of as a profit-seeking activity. The relationship is
unique precisely because Pleasant Company continually, and even overtly, tells
its readers what constitutes an American girl.
In sum, the catalogs construct a relationship between Pleasant Company and its
intended audience, American girls. In doing so, the text depicts Pleasant
Company as an educational/entertainment organization that is particularly
sensitive and sympathetic to its audience's needs. The latter take preeminence
and become the ostensible motivation for Pleasant Company's actions rendering an
image of a company (and products) that are not ordinary, "It's for you if you
want to collect something so special that you'll treasure it for years to come"
Constructing American Girls
Is it possible to confirm ethnic or national identity without claiming a
recoverable history which supports a fixed identity? (Woodward, 1997, p. 13).
Reconstructing the Past: The Historical Collection
Through the catalogs and books, the AG Collection is portrayed as a line of
dolls representing characters that lived in the past, "[m]eet Felicity,
Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly, six lively American girls who
lived long ago" (Falla 1996, p. 3). Their books, outfits and accessories,
"replicas of real things found in times gone by" (Summer 1995, back cover),
contribute to the signifying process through which these dolls become characters
and are represented as historical. Inevitably, however, representation also
works at a second level. Since the dolls/characters are presented as historical,
then they-themselves- represent, through personification, the American past. In
other words, the AG Collection reconstructs the past in a particular way,
rendering in the process a version of American history (and American identity).
This process is explored by focusing on the catalogs, the books, and the
products they attempt to sell.
In every catalog and book, each doll/character has a year and a phrase
associated to them. These phrases are short descriptions, which give a first
representation of the dolls:
Felicity 1774 A spunky, spritely colonial girl
Josefina 1824 An Hispanic girl of heart and hope
Kirsten 1854 A pioneer girl of strength and spirit
Addy 1864 A courageous girl of the Civil War
Samantha 1904 A bright Victorian beauty
Molly 1944 A lovable schemer and dreamer
These phrases explicitly associate a historical period to Felicity, Kirsten,
Addy, and Samantha. Adults who read these will probably realize that Molly's
year is the last of WWII. Josefina's year and short description are the only
ones that lack a historical reference. On the other hand, only Josefina's
description contains a reference to the doll/character's ethnicity. Samantha's
description is also unique. It is the only one that mentions physical
attributes, she is a "beauty." All the dolls/characters have some personality
traits associated to them: "spunky, spritely," "heart and hope," "strength and
spirit," "courageous," "bright," and "lovable".
The dolls highlight specific years of significance to U.S. history. The Civil
War and WWII are part of the American past as represented by Pleasant Company.
WWI, the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold wars are not. In this way, the assignment of
a particular year/historical period to each doll automatically places that
period under the spotlight and makes it part of these products' representation
of the American past.
Through the catalogs' and books' text, the dolls/characters (with the exception
of Josefina) are made to represent each historical period by presenting them as
the personification of the United States in each of these eras. In this way,
dolls/characters and country are portrayed as mirror images of each other.
Felicity, who continuously rebels against the colonial social norms imposed on
her, is explicitly associated with the colonies' struggle for independence,
"Felicity's strong-willed struggle for independence matches America's own feisty
fight for freedom at the time of the American Revolution" (Springa 1998, p. 4).
The parallelisms between Felicity and the colonies are persistent throughout her
stories. For instance, in Happy Birthday, Felicity! she disobeys her parents at
the same time that the colonists begin to disobey the king. In her last book,
Felicity acquires more independence and realizes, like the colonies, that
independence is always accompanied by the necessity of self-governance (Changes
Addy and her family are slaves in the south during the Civil War. She and her
mother escape to Philadelphia where her stories take place. The rest of her
immediate family (father, brother, and baby sister) stay behind. This is the
setup of Addy's books' overarching conflict, the separation of her family and
the tradeoffs involved between being free in the north and not having her family
together. The catalogs and books explicitly make the parallel between Addy and
the United States (which is also separated into North and South), "Addy-and
America-learn the importance of freedom" (Springa 1998, p. 30). In the end, the
war over, her family reunited as do the North and the South again constituting
the United States (Changes for Addy).
Samantha represents the contrast and conflicts of America in the new century,
"a time of frills and finery, when America was popping with newfangled notions"
(Falla 1996, p. 34). The contrasts are between her, a wealthy orphan, and her
best friend Nellie, a poor servant girl. Through Nellie, Samantha learns about
the orphan train and the difficult conditions in which poor children lived,
working long hours at unsafe factories and not being able to go to school.
Samantha's books depict the stark contrasts between the social classes of early
1900s America. Her books are also about the conflicts between the prevalent
ideas of her time, epitomized by her grandmother, and "newfangled notions" that
struggle for recognition and acceptance, personified by her Aunt Cornelia:
"I could earn money to buy her [a new doll], Grandmary. I could make boomerangs
and sell them. The Boys' Handy Book shows just how to do it. I could-"
"Samantha!" Grandmary was shocked. "A lady does not earn money."
Samantha had known there wasn't much hope, but she added very quietly,
"Cornelia says a woman should be able to earn money. She says women shouldn't
have to depend on men for everything. She says-"
"Cornelia has a great many newfangled notions," announced Grandmary. "She
should keep them to herself" (emphasis in the original, Meet Samantha, pp.
Molly, whose father is a medical doctor on service in Europe and whose mother
works for the Red Cross, represents the United States' "homefront" during WWII,
"when America was hardworking and hopeful, patriotic and proud" (Springa 1998,
p. 50). Like the country, Molly struggles with scarcity and sacrifice to help
the war effort. Like the 1940s United States, Molly faces the changes and
challenges brought about by the redefinition of gender roles during the war:
Before Dad left, before the war, Molly's family never ate supper in the kitchen.
They ate dinner in the dining room. Before Dad left, back before the war, the
whole family always had dinner together. They laughed and talked the whole time.
Now things were different. Dad was gone, and every morning Molly's mother went
off to work at the Red Cross headquarters. Very often she got home too late to
have dinner with the family" (Meet Molly, pp. 5-6).
Kirsten was born in Sweden and moved to the American mid-west when she was nine
years old (1854). She represents the immigrants and the gratifications and
difficulties of the melting pot. Her overarching conflict is whether she will
adapt to life in the United States. This conflict is directly stated in the
catalogs' description of her first book which ends with the question "will she
ever feel at home like a real American girl?" (p. 20), an interesting question
that suggests that immigrants are not "real American." Kirsten's outfits and
accessories artfully mix her Swedish roots with the American style, rendering a
visual representation of the melting pot:
Kirsten comes in a blue calico dress-her first real American dress. [...]She
wears the red and white apron she brought from Sweden (p. 20).
Pack a lunch for Kirsten in this charming oval wooden box. In Sweden, it's
called a "tine" (tee-na). [...] Pioneer food was simple but hearty. For lunch,
give Kirsten a piece of bread, a sausage, a wedge of cheese, and a juicy wild
apple" (p. 22).
In Sweden, on the darkest day of the year, the oldest daughter dresses up as the
Saint Lucia girl. [...] Your Kirsten doll can wear her long white gown trimmed
with a bright red sash (p. 23).
For Kirsten's first American birthday she wore a summery dress checked in apple
blossom pink and covered with a crisp white apron (p. 24).
By the end of her last book, Kirsten has succeeded in adapting to her new
country and her family is even able to build a new house, a direct affirmative
answer to the question posited in her first book, i.e.: she feels at home in
America because she literally has a home.
On the other hand, Josefina's 1824 world, as represented in her stories,
outfits and accessories, is purely New Mexican. There is no attempt to present
her as part of the melting pot. Even though she is labeled as "hispanic,"
Josefina looks and dresses like the women we see in re-runs of the Zorro
television series. Her books, outfits and accessories may be historically
accurate, but it is misleading to represent her as hispanic, which is a word of
relatively recent usage that is commonly associated with people of Latin
American origin. In this case, the word hispanic is associated with Mexican
outfits and accessories that do not accurately represent the variety (and
ambiguity) included in the term. Unlike Kirsten's, Josefina's outfits and
accessories do not mix and blend her New Mexican heritage with American style
New Mexican winters could be very cold, when the sharp winds blew down form the
mountains. Slip Josefina's sarape (sah-RAH-peh) over her head so she'll stay
toasty and warm. Its distinctive design is similar to the highly valued Saltillo
sarapes of Josefina's day (emphasis in the original, Holidaya 1998, p. 21).
Tia Dolores brought books and writing supplies from Mexico City-a speller called
a silabario, a ledger, a quill pen, a glass inkwell-and gave Josefina lessons.
You can help Josefina read the cuaderno, a leather notebook filled with poems,
proverbs, songs [...] (emphasis in the original, p. 16).
Josefina loved the cheerful bustle of the cocina, the kitchen. Help her grind
corn with the mano and metate, or grinding stones [...]The chiles in the coiled
basket and the stick strung with dried squash, garlic, and corn will make a
tasty meal (emphasis in the original, p. 21).
Neither the books, nor the catalogs establish parallels between Josefina and
the United States. She never personifies the country. Her stories, centered
around the loss of her mother, develop against the background of 1824 New
Mexico (which was part of Mexico until the 1848 signature of the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo, yielding Texas, New Mexico and California to the United
States). References to the "americanos" only appear in her last two books, when
American traders come to Santa Fe with their wagons filled with American goods
to be traded for New Mexican handwoven blankets and Spanish gold coins. In
Josefina Saves the Day, an American trader gets acquainted with Josefina's
family. But trust for the americanos does not come naturally for these New
Mexicans. When it seems that the trader has betrayed them, Josefina's
"I knew it was a mistake to trust that americano!" said Abuelita. "he used his
jokes and flattery and music to trick us into liking him! We didn't really know
him at all!" She turned to Pap . "If you go to town right now, perhaps you can
find your mules and get them back," she said (Josefina Saves the Day, p. 45).
In the end, the American trader has not betrayed the Montoyas. However, the
mistrust between two cultures, that are accurately presented as different, is
patent. Josefina's books end twenty years before New Mexico became part of the
U.S. And, even though her stories only hint the intercultural conflicts awaiting
New Mexico, "A Peek into the Past" of her last book describes them in more
Even though Americans were happy to do business with New Mexicans, many of them
looked down on Mexican people or made fun of New Mexican customs they did not
understand (Changes for Josefina, p. 61-62).
[S]ome Americans simply took advantage of New Mexicans who did not speak English
and tricked them out of their property (p. 65).
Americans were not willing to grant statehood to New Mexico for many years. One
reason was prejudice against people of Spanish and Mexican heritage. Many
Americans thought that New Mexicans seemed too foreign to be "real" Americans
This seems to be precisely the problem with Josefina, whose looks, dress and
costumes seem too foreign to be considered a "real" American girl. While the
other five dolls/characters personify U.S. facets or stages in its history,
Josefina personifies a different culture. In this sense, even though her
collection (like the rest of the dolls) is supported by historical research, she
fails to represent hispanics as a true ingredient of the melting pot.
In sum, the American Girl Collection uses historical fiction, beautiful dolls,
and historically-accurate outfits and accessories to construct a romanticized
version of American history that underscores particular periods: colonial
(Felicity), pioneer (Kirsten), Civil War (Addy), Victorian (Samantha), and WWII
(Molly). It also includes issues of independence and self-governance (Felicity),
immigration and adaptation/incorporation (Kirsten), slavery and freedom (Addy),
class (Samantha), gender roles (Molly), and ethnicity and nationality (Josefina)
which become part of the construction of an American identity.
Depicting the Present: The AG of Today
Pleasant Company's construction of an American identity is also furthered
through the depiction of an American (girl) present. The AG of Today's dolls,
accessories and outfits are the site of this portrayal. These products'
signifying work is performed in a different way than the AG Collection's. In the
latter, dolls become characters through the books, which provide them with
personalities, historical backgrounds and details that are efficiently
commodified into the AG products featured in the catalogs. On the other hand,
the AG of Today is, seemingly, just a doll that can be ordered in 20 different
combinations of skin, hair and eye color. However, these dolls are transformed
into characters through their identification (and validation) with "you=American
You're the inspiration for a whole new line-a collection of simply great stuff
that celebrates who you are today, and what you love to do. In fact, its' even
named after you-American Girl! (Falla 1996, p. 66).
There's the American Girl of Today- a doll like you, with mini-gear that matches
yours. Her adventures are your adventures. Her dreams are your dreams! (p. 67).
Even though these dolls do not have stories, they come with a special issue
of American Girl magazine, which is represented as their accompanying text,
"Here's her story, too!" (emphasis in the original, Holidaya 1998, p. 75). The
magazine is also linked, through identification, with its audience, since it is
"bright and energetic, spirited and full of fun-just like you!" (emphasis added,
Falla 1996, p. 66). In short, the AG of Today conflates dolls and real girls, in
the same fashion as the historical collection did with dolls and characters.
Pleasant Company's portrayal of the American present, through its merchandise,
is organized in a similar fashion as the historical collection's presentation of
its line of products-school, holidays, birthday, sleep-related activities
(slumber parties), summer and winter outdoor activities. However, unlike the
historical collection, whose products (and their presentation) stay the same
catalog after catalog, the AG of Today continuously features new outfits and
accessories which represent different contemporary facets of girls' life in
America. In this sense, this AG present is dynamic. It is also a colorful
present. The different combinations of skin, hair and eye color of the dolls are
complemented by outfits and accessories in bright bold colors, which are
reinforced by the text's use of boldfaced, colorful type for emphasis, giving an
impression of contemporary fun.
The AG present emphasizes diversity and multiculturalism. It includes outfits
and accessories for Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and the Chinese New Year. It features
diverse activities-in-line skating, horseback riding, camping, swimming, soccer,
skiing, and even an Earth Day outfit:
Celebrate Earth Day-even on birthdays! Dress your doll in bib overall shorts and
an individually tie-dyed T-shirt, then add a leather barrette to hold her hair
back. Even her sandals make a statement-they leave the "recycle" imprint
wherever she goes! GBOC $22 (emphasis in the original, Springc 1998, p. 58).
There is also a wheelchair and, of course, 20 different choices of faces
including an Asian American, two African American, and several faces that could
be classified as hispanic.
Notwithstanding its diversity, the AG present is socially privileged. Few, if
any, public schools have student's desks as modern and expensive as the one
featured in the AG catalog. Not all contemporary girls have their own computers
(the catalog sells a "mini Macintosh"), are able to go snow skiing dressed in a
"speedy silver and black ski suit with matching gloves and headband" (Holidaya
1998, p. 89), or can afford to take violin, ballet, or horseback riding lessons.
It is an idealized version of the present, in which girls are depicted (through
the dolls) as having many options that they can include in their lifestyles.
The AG of Today dolls/girls are also privileged because they own AG dolls. That
is, real girls own AG of Today dolls that are a representation of them.
Therefore, these dolls also own AG dolls, books, and magazines (like their
owners do). Miniature, six-inch versions of the historical dolls are sold with
an also tiny hardcover version of their first book ($20). Sleepwear for the
dolls is sold with tiny versions of American Library books, such as Crafts for
Girls, Games and Giggles, and Help! A mini version of the American Girl magazine
is one of the accessories that can be acquired for the AG of Today. Also, each
issue of the magazine has also a "Mini-Mag" so girls can make their dolls their
"own miniature copy of American Girl" (American Girl, January/February 1997, p.
45). It is a curious and clever maneuver in which the historical collection
becomes a signifier of what it means to be a contemporary American girl. At the
same time, the AG of Today is further validated as an accurate representation
of contemporary American girlhood.
There is a clear sense of history-in-the-making surrounding the AG of Today.
The initial reference, again, is the historical collection, which makes history
and the American past real through the six dolls/characters and their related
texts and merchandise. Following this "dolls-make-it-real" rationale,
contemporary girls also become part of history because there are dolls "just
like" them, "She's just like you. You're a part of history, too!" (emphasis in
the original, Falla 1996, pp. 68-69), "[t]his is her moment in history, and your
moment too" (Holidaya 1998, pp. 72-73).
Summarizing, the AG of Today collection conflates its dolls with contemporary
girls, defined in the text as the audience, "you=American girl." By doing this,
the collection validates itself as an accurate representation of the American
(girl) present. It is a colorful version of the present characterized by change
and by the organization of life in school, holidays, birthdays, outdoor
activities, and sleeping-associated activities. This AG present while embracing
diversity and multiculturalism, depicts an idealized and socially-privileged
reality which includes beautiful outfits and expensive accessories and
activities, including ownership of AG products. Finally, the AG of Today links
past to present by defining girls as history makers.
Diversity, Ethnicity, Values and American Girls
As explained in preceding sections, Pleasant Company uses the term "American
girl" to identify the intended receivers of its marketing message. However, the
term is further defined through the company's catalogs, books, and products.
Through the AG Collection, "American girl" is connected to a particular version
of the past. In the same manner, the term is connected to a portrayal of the
present as depicted by the AG of Today line. Through these links with an AG past
and present, Pleasant Company develops a concept of American girl. This section
looks further into this concept focusing on its links with issues of
nationality, ethnicity, and values. I highlight the marketing tactics employed
and the work they perform through the text, which represent Pleasant Company's
products as endowed with values, and, in consequence, worthy of being purchased.
Obviously, the term "American girl" involves issues of nationality. It tells us
that the collections are not concerned with "German", "Korean," or "Peruvian"
girls. American girls, in the U.S. context, has a straightforward meaning, i.e.:
U.S. girls. Through these products-cultural artifacts-"nation-ness"
(Anderson, 1983, p. 13) is constructed. It is a concept of nationality that
includes a heterogeneous group, in the sense that they represent diverse
physical characteristics. The historical collection includes six different
combinations of skin, hair and eye color:
Felicity white skin, red hair, green eyes
Josefina tan skin, "mahogany" brown hair, brown eyes
Kirsten white skin, blond hair, blue eyes
Addy brown skin, dark brown "textured" hair, brown eyes
Samantha white skin, brown hair, brown eyes
Molly white skin, brown hair, gray eyes
The AG of Today offers 20 combinations that mix light, medium, or dark skin with
five possibilities of eye color (light brown, dark brown, blue, green), and six
choices of hair (dark brown, light brown, textured black, black, blond, red).
The result is a picture of American girls that is ethnically and visually
diverse. This is reinforced through the catalogs' use of girls from assorted
ethnical backgrounds as models, and through the AG Library books' illustrations
which also depict an heterogeneous group of girls.
The question is, what do the members of this diverse group, i.e.: American
girls, have in common? What unites them? Pleasant Company's answer is that
American girls are united through history (as explained in the two previous
sections) and by a particular set of values that remains unchanged through time:
The American Girls Collection [...] created to give girls an understanding of
America's past and a sense of pride in the values and traditions they share with
girls of yesterday (emphasis added, Fallb 1997, p. 1).
[F]amilies, friendships, and feelings, haven't changed through the years. These
are the important things that American girls will always share (emphasis added,
Springb 1998, p. 2).
Save The American Girls Collection for that day when she is truly ready and able
to understand its historical lessons and to embrace the important values that
the books teach and that doll play reinforces" (emphasis added, Winter 1998, p.
Moreover, the one-sentence descriptions of the historical dolls endorse
qualities such as being "spunky and spritely," "courageous," "bright," and
"lovable." These are sanctioned as desirable qualities/values for American
girls. The catalog's persistent representation of its products as links between
entertainment and education, becomes an AG value in itself, along with the
romanticization of the AG past and present. The catalogs use parents'
testimonials to further bolster the idea that American girls (and AG products)
are about values:
Your product line reinforces so many of the things I hope to teach my daughter-a
love of reading, a passion for history, a rich imagination, and an appreciation
for cultural diversity (Holidaya 1998, p. 3).
Molly's more than a doll-she somehow embodies the best of childhood (Spring
1997, p. 52).
Thank you for being a company that obviously cares enough about our children to
offer them not only an entertaining experience, but also an education in our
past, traditions, and values (Holidaya 1998, p. 62).
The AG catalogs manage to market their products successfully, while
constructing a self-image of a company that fosters values. This is accomplished
through carefully-crafted copy that sells and highlights AG values at the same
With American Girl Gear you'll find it doesn't take a lot of clothes to look
great, just a little creativity. American Girl Gear is designed to mix and match
your way, so when you dress yourself you can express yourself.
But remember, it's who you are, not what you wear, that matters. Spunk and
spirit will always win over style. A kind heart will always beat a closetful of
clothes. And the best-dressed girl is the one who always wears the biggest
smile. That's real American Girl style! (emphasis in the original, Fallb 1997,
This is advertising standard practice, i.e.: to co-opt even the most progressive
social movements and ideas. The catalogs cleverly market their
merchandise-material articles-by draping them with a righteousness cloak that
(ironically) champions the idea that it is not material things which make up, or
are important for American girls. AG catalogs frequently conflate their products
with generally-valued relationships such as friendship. By equating clothes with
friends, the text succeeds in drawing parallels between AG merchandise and AG
values, e.g.: outfits are old friends, jeans are like a great friendship.
Favorite outfits can be like old friends, too. Spice them up with a bright new
sweater or a snappy new vest and you'll see how much more fun they are to wear.
Variety, in friends and fashion, really is the spice of life! (p. 17).
The new girl next to you looks shy. Say hi! You might find you have a lot in
common. Like how you both get the giggles late at night, love cheesy popcorn, or
like to wear easy clothes! These true-blue denims are friendly and familiar.
They feel just right-like the start of a great friendship! (Holidaya 1998, p.
Another successful marketing tactic present in the AG catalogs is to advice
girls to perform certain activities that will lead them into purchasing the AG
products. For instance, in the AG Gear section of a 1997 catalog, there is a
double-page spread headlined "Time for Sports." The spread features the AG
Library book Here's How and a girl in a leotard performing a gymnastic exercise.
The copy, placed under a large sub-head that reads "Try," exhorts girls to do
You don't have to be great at a sport to get a lot out of it. There's the fun of
trying something new, seeing yourself improve, or being part of a team that
pulls together. Sometimes, though, a little "inside information" can give you
the confidence you need to get started.
Check out Here's How and learn how to spin a basketball, dance the hula, throw
like a pro, spin on skates, and more. A little practice and you'll be ready to
play. Try it. You'll like it (Falla 1997, pp. 20-21).
The next two pages, headlined "Play hard. Play fair. Play your best!" feature AG
sports clothes for hockey, bowling, volleyball, ice skating, dance, soccer and
basketball. Clothes and book are sold by highlighting a generally accepted
value. In this case, that of sports activities. The need for sports (and for
their sports merchandise) is stressed and successfully created.
Pleasant Company's catalogs, books, and products constitute a well-designed,
thorough, and efficient marketing machine. By associating its merchandise with
"American" values (especially with education), the company succeeds in
separating itself from other toy makers. The text constructs an image of a
company that is not motivated by profit, but is inspired by the well being of
young American girls. In the process, it delineates an American girl who is
ethnically diverse, privileged, endowed with certain values, and-last but not
least-an AG customer.
Empowering American Girls
Pleasant Company, with its clever marketing strategy using catalogs (and
merchandise) to depict a romanticized version of the past and a
socio-economically privileged account of the present, also includes an
empowering message for girls. The construction of an exclusive focus on
American girls is, in itself, empowering. It assigns importance to girls in a
"girl-poisoning culture" that oppresses them by subjecting them to "incredible
pressures to be beautiful and sophisticated" (Pipher, 1994, p. 12). This is
highlighted throughout by the Company's depiction of its relationship with the
girls. They "believe that what [girls] say is important" (Fallb 1997, p. 1),
therefore, "they talk to us, and we listen" (Holidayb 1997, p. 1) establishing
"a bond of trust with American girls" (p. 1).
The catalogs are explicit about their empowerment intentions which are also
used as a marketing strategy that will sell their products:
[W]e are committed to giving girls a sense of pride, possibility, and power in
this, their moment in history (p. 1).
[W]e link past to present and empower girls to take pride in this, their moment
in history (Fall a 1997, p. 1).
The text attempts to empower girls by giving them a special role in history,
telling them that "this is your time to shine" and "you're part of history too!"
In this way, it seeks to bolster girls's sense of self-importance and provides
essential (historical) grounding for their American girl identity (Woodward,
1997). This is reinforced with the products' emphasis that American girls (and
dolls) are "unique one-of-a-kind original[s]" (Holidaya 1996, p. 67), destined
to play historical roles.
Through visual and verbal language, the catalogs continuously identify girls
with the dolls (historical and AG of Today). By representing the historical
dolls as role models and by celebrating the AG of Today, the catalogs and books
convey that being American girls is "great," "something to celebrate" (Falla
1996, p. 1) and "something to be proud of" (Fallb 1996). At the same time,
the catalogs construct a community of girls who, by being AG consumers, become a
special brand of "American girls:"
Are you a fan of The American Girls Collection? If the answer is "YES," then The
American Girls Club wants you! Join thousands of girls across the country-new
friends who love Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly just like you do!
(Holidaya 1996, p. 65).
The community goes beyond the members of this club who "share [their]
experiences, swap secrets, and compare notes with a [pen pal] who loves the
American Girls as much as you do" (p. 65). It is built through the AG magazine,
AG Library books, AG events, reading groups, and through the catalogs' quotes
from girls who share their experiences/advice with readers. For instance, in one
of 1998 holiday catalogs, there were several pages that featured girls with band
musical instruments modelling some AG Gear. The copy describes pre-concert
jitters and shares "tips from girls like you who've been under the bright lights
before!" (Holidaya 1998, p. 111). In this way, Pleasant Company gives girls a
sense of being part of a special group of girls with shared values, experiences,
and consumption practices. This sense of belonging is also empowering.
Summarizing, the AG products is a case in which profit-seeking marketing
strategies can simultaneously be empowering for girls by portraying them as
special, unique historical role-players who belong to a special community, that
of American girls.
Pleasant Company's success is largely based on its thoroughness and attention
to detail in all aspects of the development, promotion, and sale of its
products. The textual analysis of the AG texts exposed skillfully crafted copy
and effective visual language that efficiently project Pleasant Company's
The circuit of culture furnished an adequate theoretical framework for the
study. Its emphasis on the interconnectedness of distinct, but not discrete,
moments in which meanings are produced, modified, and struggled over, provided
an excellent model for the cultural analysis of the AG dolls. In addition, the
circuit's acknowledgement that the cultural process is too complex to be
understood in terms of existing theories that are limited to the explanation of
one of its moments, offered the opportunity to use different theoretical
perspectives to inform the study of representation and identity, which were this
paper's main concerns.
Identification, "one of the least well understood concepts" (Hall, 1996, p. 2),
is a dynamic, never ending project in the making. The AG texts-dolls, catalogs,
books, etc.-attempt to fix and influence this process in order to sell their
products. The AG catalogs and merchandise appeal to girls by establishing an
identification between their merchandise and their younger audience. This is
achieved through various channels. First, the company constructs its audience,
"you=American girl," and a special relationship between Pleasant company and
that audience. Second, the AG of Today is represented as based, "inspired," by
"you=American girl." In this way, the collection validates itself as an accurate
representation of the American girl present and, at the same time, gives girls
the opportunity of getting a doll that resembles them. Third, the catalogs also
manufacture an identification link between girls and the historical dolls
through the use of photographs of girls and dolls with identical outfits and
similar physical characteristics. Moreover, since the historical
dolls/characters' stories conflate the dolls with the U.S., the merchandise also
establishes an identification link between girls and the U.S. that further
develops an American girl identity. In sum, following standard advertising
practice, Pleasant Company addresses its buyers by building an identification
between these young consumers and its products.
The AG texts represent a romanticized version of the American past that
highlights specific periods (colonial, pioneer, Civil War, Victorian, and WWII)
and issues (independence, immigration, slavery, class, gender roles, and
ethnicity). The texts also depict a dynamic, colorful, multicultural, and
privileged American present. These versions of the past and present contribute
to the construction of an American girl identity that, while not divorced from
nationality, stress a set of values that render a fluid, culturally-based
definition of American girls. However, this study also suggests that the
catalogs' and books' representation of Josefina (and Josefina as a
representation of "hispanic") succeed in perpetuating the simplistic idea that
all hispanics are Mexican. Mexico functions as a synecdoche of Latin America.
These catalogs, books, and this doll/character, Josefina, fail to present
hispanics as an ingredient of the melting pot.
This paper is part of a larger study on the AG products that also includes the
study of consumption through in-depth interviews of girls and their mothers,
which is only the beginning of more work on the AG products and on much-needed
media studies centered on girls. However, the variety of AG texts and products
did not allow for textual analyses of all of them. For instance, the bimonthly
American Girl magazine is an important AG text that should be the focus of a
textual analysis. Expensive ($3.95 per issue, $19.95 per one-year-six
issues-subscription) and with no commercial advertisement, the magazine boasts a
circulation of 800,000. Its analysis is an essential part of the understanding
of Pleasant Company's products and the community of girls united by them. I
believe that the study of the store in Chicago, American Girl Place, is also
obligatory. It should include both the textual analysis of the experience
associated with the store, and interviews with people who have shopped,
dined, and being entertained in it.
In order to close the circuit of culture, I intend to study the moments of
production and regulation. The study of Pleasant Company's research and
development of new products is essential to the understanding of how meanings
are inscribed in production. This part of the study requires access to the
company through interviews and/or document analysis. In this way, we could find
answers to questions such as: why are immigrant girls portrayed through
Scandinavian Kirsten, instead of using, for example, an Irish or an Italian
girl? Why is hispanic Josefina placed in New Mexico (Mexico) in 1824? Why not
develop a hispanic character/doll based on a Cuban girl who arrived to Miami on
a balsa in 1964, or a Puerto Rican girl living in New York City? Why is Addy set
in the Civil War and not in the Harlem Renaissance? Are there plans to develop
Native American, Jewish, or Islamic dolls/characters? Why set up a huge store
when they were so successful through direct marketing? Furthermore, the analysis
of production should include the study of the changes derived from Mattel's
purchase of Pleasant Company. Looking at these changes will inevitably lead
us into the study of how the AG dolls have influenced the regulation of cultural
life, by changing the doll market and the parameters of consumption of dolls and
In sum, this study and the future avenues of research described above will
provide a thorough cultural study of the AG dolls. A contribution to the scant
literature on girls and popular culture and to the important academic area of
feminist cultural studies. A cultural analysis that will allow us to scrutinize
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 . It must be noted that Barbie's annual sales of approximately $900 million
were three times larger than Pleasant Company's (Vargas, 1997).
 . Other texts analyzed include: Disney movies, Sesame Street, Barney, video
games, Beavis and Butt-Head, the Power Rangers, children's magazines, and
 . This literature seldom mention girls. When it does, it is generally in
relation to the effects of gender stereotyping on television and advertising.
 . See the Journal of Communication Inquiry, in particular its special issue
"Cultural Materialism," Journal of Communication Inquiry, 16(2).
 . Until 1995, the catalogs were larger in size, 10"x 12".
 . One of the few noticeable changes in the catalogs since Mattel's
acquisition of Pleasant Company.
 . This type of photograph is frequent in the catalogs. Even catalogs that do
not feature girls in their covers, will include this type of picture inside,
showing girls and dolls that resemble each other in their physiques and outfits,
reading in a pleasant, peaceful setting. It is an effective way of establishing
the identification girl/AG doll and the connection girl/AG doll/book. At the
same time, it is a rather idealized image of girlhood, one that is a stark
contrast with the hectic, frantic characteristics that we associate with
 . These are sets of 58"x 24" background scenes depicting each
doll/character's bedroom, kitchen, school, etc.
 . The AG of Today has recently been re-named AG Today (Holidaya 1998).
 . At the time of this writing, Josefina's Teacher's Guide had not been
 . In another post-Mattel change, the caption now reads "Pleasant Rowland,
founder and CEO of Pleasant Company and creator of American Girl" (Holidaya
1998, p. 1).
 . Hispanic is a problematic term. For instance, it connotes people who
speak Spanish. Then, is a Brazilian a Hispanic? Is a person from Spain a
Hispanic? What is the difference between the terms "Hispanic" and "Latina(o)"?
Furthermore, how does a "Hispanic" look?
 . In Josefina's first book, her mother has recently passed away. Through
the six books, Josefina struggles, but eventually learns, to live without her
beloved Mam . Her aunt, Tia Dolores, becomes a maternal figure for Josefina and
her sisters. In the end, Dolores marries Josefina's father, solving-in this
way-Josefina's overarching conflict.
 . Placing Josefina in New Mexico does not help either. During the 1996
Olympic Games in Atlanta, an ACOG (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games)
operator denied a person calling from New Mexico the opportunity to buy tickets
on the basis that ACOG could not sell tickets to "someone who lives outside the
United States" ("Atlanta Olympic", 1996).
 . The AG of Today dolls come with a blank book and a Writer's Guide to help
girls write their doll's story.
 . The meaning would not be as straightforward in a different context. For
instance, in Central and South America, Latin American girls are also American
 . To celebrate Pleasant Company's tenth anniversary, the company sold
doll/girl special edition matching t-shirts that declared "Proud to be an
 . For a similar analysis focusing on the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, see
F rsich & Lester (1998).
 . The Spring 99 catalog has a sticker explaining that this is the last full
catalog until Fall. A radical change from the constant arrival of catalogs in
previous years. In addition, the catalog does not include the Bitty Baby or the
AG Gear. These two lines came in separate, smaller catalogs printed on