When the line of American Girl dolls debuted in 1986, each doll was sold with a book telling her story and how it fit into American History. Felicity Merriman was a girl just before the American Revoltution, Addy Walker lived during the Civil War, Kit Kittredge is growing up during the Great Depression, and so on. Girls loved the stories, and parents loved to see girls learning some history as they played.
The line became a huge success, was bought by Mattel, and now includes the enormously popular American Girl Place stores. And this year, the brand introduced a new doll.
This new doll doesn't include a history lesson or even a backstory. But she had another attraction: She could be designed to look exactly like your daughter.
The "doll who looks like me" phenomenon has been around for awhile, and there's inherent narcissism in the very concept (what will I love better than ... me?) But "My American Girl," as this new line is called, takes the idea to the next level in its advertising, which somehow manages to use almost every highly individualistic word and aphorism in existence. "Her new My American Girl doll will help her feel like she can do anything," reads the ad copy. "She'll create a unique, special friend unlike any other doll." (Just for background: "You can be anything you want to be" is, literally, Chapter 3 in Generation Me, and feeling special and unique are correlates of narcissism.)
So instead of learning about history, important social issues, and how girls fit into the events and culture around them, girls play with a doll that's just like them. She might not learn anything about history, but she'll learn about herself.
Most striking, the website associated with the dolls is called innerstarU.com. I am not kidding. Let's count off the so-big-you-can't-miss-them hyperindividualistic messages embedded in this name:
1. It includes star, as in being a famous movie star.
2. She won't just be a star, she will be an "inner" star, which the ad copy confirms means exactly what I think it does: "innerstarU.com - a place for her to learn about herself ... and follow her heart."
3. It even sneaks in a capital U, for University, which every parent hopes will be followed by words like "Harvard" or "Yale," though some girls might hope it's a university that lets you study how to become a famous star.
So is getting a My American Girl for Christmas going to make your daughter a narcissist?
No. But growing up in a culture that places such an overwhelming emphasis on the self, becoming a star, and being unique and special just might.