Anne Helen Petersen reflects on American Girl dolls, childhood consumerism, and the values we absorbed in spite of ourselves in a piece that articulates feelings I didn’t even know I had.
I’m not, strictly speaking, a Molly. I had a Samantha and a Kirsten, and both of them spoke volumes about who I wanted to be (privileged, so well dressed, urban) and who I was (Scandinavian, solidly built, rural). Chiara Atik has already written the definitive statement on what your doll says about you, and I don’t disagree with her assessment of Molly-owners:
If you had Molly, you probably wanted Samantha instead, but contented yourself with Molly because you too wore glasses, liked books, were bad at math, and would concoct various schemes to get attention. (Oh, Molly.) If you were a Molly, and had a Molly (as opposed to being a Molly and aspirationally owning a Felicity), you were imbued, then and now, with an immutable sense of self. At least Molly could tap dance, which is frankly more talent than any of the other girls exhibited.
Truth: Molly was the least showy and, at least of the original, lily-white, middle-class American dolls, the only one with any sort of class consciousness. It was a consciousness enforced by the war, but still, the book’s renderings of thrift were my introduction, other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to what it meant to sacrifice, and how to substitute the feelings of resentment with those of purpose and solidarity.
I look back on my own years spent poring over the American Girl catalog with a red pen, circling the exceedingly expensive swag I wanted from Santa for Christmas, and baking petit fours for the American Girl Doll Club, and it’s hard not to view it all with a strong sense of cynicism. But the books were another matter: sure, they were another way for the Pleasant Company and later Mattel to get me to empty my parents’ wallets, but I think they taught me more than I realized. For better or for worse, maybe, but mostly I think for better.
Au revoir, Molly McIntire.