I was a Samantha myself. And then a Molly. And, in the end, an Addy.
I’m talking about my American Girl dolls, of course. The collection, launched as a catalog line in 1986 with just three characters, has sold an estimated 23 million dolls in 27 years, according to the company’s figures. There’s also American Girl magazine, 17 American Girl retail stores that welcome 54 million visitors a year, and 143 million American Girl books sold.
But outside the United States, and they’re virtually unknown—which is why artist Ilona Szwarc, a Polish immigrant, was surprised to see young girls clutching these “look-alike dolls” as she walked the streets of New York.
“I was really struck when I found out these dolls were called American girl,” Szwarc said in an email. “I was wondering what it meant to be a woman in the U.S. and what it means to be American. I also started reflecting on my own cultural identity and how my childhood was different growing up in Poland.”
Szwarc decided to start a photography project that would capture American girls and their dolls. She began taking photographs of girls posing with their dolls in New York City, and then traveled all over the country—from the East Coast to California and finished up in Texas. She put out casting calls via Facebook and American Girl fan pages, and girls began lining up to be photographed with their dolls. All total, she has photographed over 100 girls and is currently working on a book.
A sampling of Szwarc’s work is also being featured at the Foley Gallery in New York City from June 5 until July 3.
The photographs focus on American youth culture and gender identity—what it means to be a girl in America today. Szwarc says she first saw the dolls as a “marker of time and a new idea of dolls for girls.”
“I saw that there was a cultural shift from the troubling appearance of Barbies,” Szwarc says. “These dolls represent children, and girls don’t have to identify with unrealistic representations of women. These dolls are customizable, and therefore it must be much easier for children to relate to them and carve out their own identity.”
That’s certainly true of the American Girl model, post-1998. Founded as Pleasant Co. in 1986 by former schoolteacher Pleasant T. Rowland, American Girl consisted of three dolls set in different times throughout history: Kirsten in 1854, Samantha in 1904, and Molly in 1944. Each had a series of books chronicling her adventures. Colonial-era Felicity followed in 1991, then the first African-American doll, runaway slave Addy, in 1993, and Mexican-American 1820s doll Josefina, in 1997. The company launched American Girl magazine in 1992. In 1998 Pleasant Co. was wholly acquired by Mattel, and it was renamed American Girl, Inc., in 2004.
One of the biggest gold mines for American Girl has been the Just Like You collection, launched in 1995, which allows girls to customize their doll’s skin tone, hair color, hair length, glasses—the options seem to go on forever. The company markets the line as “a truly special doll that’s just right for her.”
There is also the “American Girl of the Year,” contemporary dolls introduced each year with two books apiece—and then eventually retired. They include Lindsey (2001), Marisole (2005), Lanie (2010), and Saige (2012). And, of course, there are the American Girl stores, the giant meccas of all things American Girl.
Ask anyone under age 35, and she can most likely tell you about her American Girl dolls—or why her parents refused to buy her one. With a $110 price tag for just a doll, it’s certainly a pricey token of childhood. American Girl’s decision to “archive” some of the original dolls—Samantha, Kirsten, and Felicity—can turn into a heated discussion among women in their 20s and 30s. The dolls are virtually unknown outside of the U.S. (an article in Britain’s Daily Mail about Szwarc’s work calls American Girl “the mini-me dolls that became a national obsession”), making them almost certainly “American,” whatever that means.
Kayla Caulfield, one of the girls photographed by Szwarc, is a 16-year-old model now, but she can clearly remember the days when she played with her American Girl dolls. She says she had four dolls—although her mother, Cindy, says five—and she says she “loved playing with my dolls—I liked the way they looked. They looked like children.” Cindy Caulfield said she herself liked the “concept of the dolls—and that each one comes with books.” The Caulfields traveled from Boston to New York for the exhibit’s opening.
Caulfield posed in the photograph in front of a portrait of her great-grandparents, who came to the U.S. from Portugal. Dressed in a nightgown, Caulfield is captured playing with her Just Like You doll’s eyes in way that comes off almost haunting.
Szwarc photographed each of the girls using a large-format camera, so the photographs are developed with what she calls a “slow, meticulous process.” The girls are photographed in positions ranging from horseback riding (girl on a real horse, doll on a fake horse) to overlooking New York City while sunbathing to simply posing on their beds.
“I wanted to capture something unique to every one of my subjects, so I would give them very simple direction and observe how they interpret it with body language,” Szwarc said.
Spending this much time photographing the dolls, though, has had drawbacks for Szwarc. She said she sees now sees the dolls as offering only variety really in hairstyles and fashion (each one does have pretty much the same facial features), meaning that “constructing female identity happens through choice and of hairstyle and fashionable accessories.”
“American Girl dolls perpetuate traditional gender roles and offer a very conservative vision for women as for contemporary times,” Szwarc said.
Would she buy a doll for any children she knows? Szwarc, who currently doesn’t have children, says she was thinking of buying one for her friends’ daughter, but hasn’t followed through. “I think I just immersed myself too much in decoding the meaning and cultural context behind this product to be able to simply enjoy it,” she says.
That doesn’t mean her exhibit isn’t enjoyable to real-life American girls. At Wednesday’s opening, visitors took their own photos on their iPhones of Szwarc’s photos. One woman signed the guestbook with “Girl Power! I owned three American Girl dolls and I couldn’t find a single one I related to / looked like. So glad I stumbled onto this exhibition.”
But maybe the best endorsement came from a 7-year-old named Tshering, who left this in the guestbook: “I love the American girls dols they look so so prity. Lexi was very prity and there was a girl named Kayla and Molleen and Maya and Leena that were also prity. And some other girls.” Another American Girl fan is born.
Gallery: Ilona Szwarc's Images at New York's Foley Gallery