Ilona Szwarc’s new series of photographs titled “American Girls” features girls posing with their customized versions of the popular American Girl dolls. The portraits emphasize the integration of the dolls into the girls’ everyday lives, play, and respective spaces. These dolls, made by Mattel, offer a host of personalization options in addition to the historically themed dolls that make the brand seem overtly educational. Girls can customize their dolls’ looks, a feature emphasized in Szwarc’s portraits of girls with their “mini-mes”. Yet even with a host of choices about hair, skin, and eye colors, the dolls look remarkably similar: they are variations of a single genre. What sets them apart are the accessories and clothes, and, most of all, the use to which the girls put them.
I went to the American Girl Web site and chose the light-skinned doll with blue eyes and long, layered “caramel” hair as my best match, and was offered “access codes to bring [my] doll to life online” and encouraged to “create a unique personality for her!” All for the starting price of $110, so no, I didn’t actually purchase one for myself. I won’t be surprised if my daughters request these dolls in a few years though, as they serve as both a rite of passage and a status symbol. I don’t yet know what my answer will be. As Szwarc states:
Each doll can be customized to look exactly like its owner, yet all of them really look the same. American Girl dolls offer an illusion of choice and therefore an illusion of individuality. Yet they play a crucial role for girls at the time when they are forming their identities.
I don’t doubt the significance of dolls in girls’ lives or the consumer-driven quest for “choice” and “individuality” that permeates marketing for even our youngest citizens. I also don’t doubt the incredible and nearly-infinite potential for creativity in children’s play, and I know firsthand that children see and imagine beyond what the marketplace dictates.
Yet Szwarc and her work raise interesting and provocative questions. The portraits themselves are intense and haunting, a glimpse into the inner workings of the girls’ imaginative worlds. Szwarc specifically asked the girls not to smile, and remarked that she gets asked most frequently about that decision. Her response: “The fact that this question has been asked so many times makes me think that it is some sort of a taboo to portray American children without a smile.” She further states, “The American Girl product defines and categorizes American girls—future American women—and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how. The branding behind the doll perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles.”
Apparently, that’s something many American girls (or their parents) are willing to pay a lot for. So as I peruse Szwarc’s portraits, I wonder in whose image these dolls are made, a reflection of their child-mothers who are reflecting their mothers who are reflecting… who?
Photo by Ilona Szwarc.