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Making Babies the American Girl Way


What catches my attention is the look in the girl’s eyes, combined with the doll clutched to her ten-year-old belly. All in all, it is a normal enough sight: a suburban family out for a day of shopping on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. But the girl has the look of one possessed. She leads the parade and is clearly the focus of the day’s outing. I pass them and turn a corner, only to come upon yet another girl, a couple of years younger, cradling a doll whose blonde locks seem clipped from her own. The girl and her doll wear identical blue jumpers. A camera dangles from her mother’s wrist. They are headed in the same direction as the group I had passed, and this girl, like the other, has the dazed look of a pilgrim too long on the road. I cross the street: another girl, same scenario. She too carries a doll, not unlike the other two dolls, but with a different hair color to match her owner’s. Has some kind of odd convention come to town? Or are they all bound for a Jerry Springer shoot somewhere nearby: Girls with doll disorders, and the families who support them? This girl’s mother points across the street, and her daughter’s body seems to rise a foot off the sidewalk, her inflated smile giving her a helium-lift. There it is. Girl Xanadu. The Taj McDoll. American Girl Place.

American Girl dolls had been around long before this singular boutique opened in 1998. A coworker at a women’s health clinic first showed me a catalog nearly a decade ago, bringing me up to speed on the latest rage among pre-pubescent girls. Another coworker chimed in, regarding her daughter’s favorites. They complained about the steep prices and sheer number of collectibles, but as good liberals, they commended the dolls’ diversity. Finally, there was a doll company that was responsive to ethnic differences, offering Asian, Latina, and other dolls of color.

We discussed these newfangled poppets in the staff room that doubles as a storage area for tanks of frozen sperm. These tanks, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to two-foot-tall circumcised Caucasian penises, arrive via FedEx from sperm banks around the country. The tanks stand in front of the copy machine, awaiting summonses from pre-ovulatory alternative insemination clients. We often use the tanks as makeshift stools and did so that day while paging through the glossy American Girl catalog.

When you make a purchase from the American Girl collection, you’re not just buying a doll, you’re buying a plausible life history.

Pleasant Rowland founded the company that makes the dolls in 1986. She sold it to Mattel in 1998, for $700,000,000. Earnings grow from year to year, with the American Girl catalog roping in more than two-thirds of the income. The first sixty or so pages of the catalog are dedicated to the American Girls Collection, a line of dolls that comes complete with a name and a personal history, accessories and storybooks. There’s the 1854 pioneer girl, Kirsten, whose family immigrated from Sweden. There’s former slave girl Addy, whose family escaped to the North. There’s Samantha, a Victorian orphan of means, and Josefina, “a Hispanic girl of heart and hope.” Their lives are further sketched in picture books, telling tales of school, summertime, and birthdays. Each book, naturally, serves as advertising for the outfits and accessories featured within. You can buy them all, from Kirsten’s summer dress with straw hat to Josefina’s pet baby goat Sombrita.

These American Girl dolls are a new breed. They’re neither pudgy, round babies nor busty Barbies. They’re post-potty trained, pre-adolescent girls, closer in proportion and size to a life-size infant than a foot-long Barbie. When you make a purchase from the American Girl collection, you’re not just buying a doll, you’re buying a plausible life history. Juan Garcia, a history professor at the University of Arizona, is quoted in the catalog as vouching for the authenticity of the Hispanic doll: “The books and products that accompany Josefina richly capture and re-create a significant time, place, and heritage in New Mexican history that young people seldom learn about.” Such knowledge does not come cheap. Josefina’s New Mexican Table & Chairs are $75, her Feast Day Finery is $22, and her Heirloom Accessories go for $12. As Josefina’s complete collection costs $925, only a few youngsters will have the opportunity to get the whole story.

The catalog is extensive, with at least eight pages dedicated to each of the six dolls in the collection. Every outfit, piece of furniture, and accessory is described, complete with teasers about the school, summer, and birthday narratives found in the accompanying books. Rather than arriving as a blank slate, each doll comes pre-endowed and packaged with personal milestones and memories.

That’s not the end of it. Girls can purchase their own outfits to match those of their dolls. Under the caption “Dress Like Your Doll,” a young, apparently Latina girl is pictured modeling the same camisa, petticoat, skirt, and rebozo that Josefina wears on the opposite page. A black girl appears beside doll Addy, in a matching striped pink dress. A light-skinned brunette in a white nightie is pictured holding light-skinned brunette Samantha in a white nightie. The catalog encourages girls to pick dolls that look like them, selecting skin, hair, and eye color as close as possible to their own. Choosing a true look-alike, the girl can then step, fully outfitted, into the doll’s elaborate narrative.

When I started working in the alternative insemination program at a women’s health center in Chicago nearly a decade ago, it was my job to make sure we had up-to-date sperm bank catalogs and donor profiles. Donor catalogs are composed of profiles that provide the information a consumer uses to choose a donor. All donors, who don’t actually “donate” but are in fact paid for their semen, are anonymous, identified only by alpha-numeric codes.

Begun nearly twenty-five years ago—when “unmarried” women were often refused access to insemination, or made to undergo a battery of psychological tests to prove they’d make “fit mothers”—our program was and is solely for lesbians and other women without male partners. In the early nineties, donor profiles were mainly straightforward, focusing on what was termed “physical characteristics”: blood type, height, weight, eye color, ethnicity, religion, and personal and family medical history. (I’d never thought of religion as a “physical characteristic,” but it was always there on the list, as if fundamental to a consumer’s decision.) You’d know, for example, that donor F645 was English and Portuguese, 6’1” and 160 pounds, an atheist with A positive blood, brown hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. Some banks included what was deemed “personal information” such as hobbies and talents. These items always struck me as funny, but I supposed that the fact that F645 was interested in “sports and game theory” might somehow whet a client’s interest. It never crossed my mind that someone might think such characteristics were genetic and therefore heritable.

Since the mid-nineties many banks have expanded these profiles. Some now include essays written by donors. Printed either in a script-like font, or handwritten, they present a donor’s response to questions like: Why do you want to be a sperm donor? If we could pass on a message to the recipients of your semen, what would that message be? Where would you like to travel and why? What is your ultimate ambition or goal in life? Some go even further and provide information about the donor’s math skills, mechanical ability, athletic talent, favorite sport, favorite type of music, artistic ability, and favorite foods, color, or pets. Some include SAT scores and GPAs. Today’s sperm consumer shops not just for an exponential number of DNA dollops with flagellae, but for a personal history, personal interests, wishes and dreams. A postgraduate degree, a “personality type,” and a personal essay are just some of the new spermatic accessories.

Such information comes at a price. Xytex, a sperm bank based in Georgia, offers short profiles that include basic information and brief medical histories. The first five are free; after that, each costs $2. Long donor profiles that include personal essays and supplemental information cost $10 each. Xytex was the first sperm bank to provide photographs of their donors. Introduced in 1994, Photo Files™ include short and long profiles as well as three 4″x6″ photos of the donor: $35 each. In 1996, Xytex started offering BabyFiles™ which contain the same written information as PhotoFiles but, in place of current photos of the donor, 8″x10″ reproductions of donors’ baby pictures. Xytex explains that “BabyFiles are helpful for those who have concerns about how their baby might look.”

Xytex also keeps what may be considered the ultimate file on donors by permanently preserving “donor cells that can be used as a complete chemical record of genetics.” The program is aptly titled PatriarchSM Genetic Tracking. According to Xytex, this genetic archive is maintained in case future progeny ever “need” such genetic information. What this means is left open and will certainly shift over time. As will, undoubtedly, the cost of access to such information.

Fairfax Cryobank, based in Virginia, hopes to lure customers with long profiles that include the donor’s “personality type” as dictated by the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Fairfax is also the first bank I know of to offer an exclusive, higher-priced sperm line, listed separately from other donors. Named “Fairfax Doctorate,” this line includes semen from donors who have completed or are completing doctoral degrees. This new sperm line follows in the footsteps of the Repository for Germinal Choice, a bank run by the famous eugenicist Robert Graham whose goal is to “improve humankind by gradually increasing the proportion of advantageous genes in the human gene pool” by featuring donors with genius-level IQs. Fairfax gives Graham’s vision a free-market twist by asserting that sperm from men with doctorates is more valuable (and therefore more costly) than rank-and-file sperm.

It won’t be long before you can order up a thin, heterosexual baby with good spatial skills, eliminating the risk of a fat, dyslexic lesbian.

But while the logic of marketing has been enthusiastically embraced by the sperm merchants, the usual cautions and warning labels are nowhere to be found. You won’t come across any notices stating, “Your child may not turn out the way you think.” The sperm industry takes advantage of the widespread bio-determinist belief that genes are the basis for future behavior and simply hopes the sperm consumer will forget that what she is purchasing is a spot of DNA that can combine with her own in myriad configurations and that a future baby will be subject to any number of environmental and social factors. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that she is purchasing a homunculus, a mini-man to be implanted into her uterus and emerge fully accessorized—and who, once grown, will play the guitar, like dogs, and be an intuitive, thoughtful extrovert with a Ph.D. in math.

What the reproduction industry promises are designer babies. Already, genetic testing allows the consumer to determine whether individual embryos created prior to in-vitro fertilization have a predisposition for genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome. You simply eliminate the ones that do and implant the ones that don’t. Similarly, any genetic trait could theoretically be selected for or against before birth. With the claim that we have identified the genes that “cause” such “traits” as obesity and homosexuality, it won’t be long before you can order up a thin, heterosexual baby with good spatial skills, eliminating the risk of a fat, dyslexic lesbian. You will be able to design a baby, selecting from a long list of specifications, the way you order a coffee at Starbucks. Making a baby the old way will be as outmoded as ordering coffee with cream and sugar.

Many of the clients I see in the insemination program are thoroughly exhausted by the stressful process of choosing sperm. Some become obsessed with picking the right donor. They feel they’re not provided enough information. One client couldn’t understand why she knew that a donor had a tenor voice, but not whether he’d ever been to jail. Another joked that what she really wanted to know was if her donor was good at Scrabble. As one said, “It’s a lot different than choosing a new car.”

But American Girl customers, soon to be of reproductive age, will be just the kind of shoppers ready to meet the challenge. They’re already familiar with the basic process, as matching doll traits isn’t so different from matching donor traits. The consumer pays for a narrative—whether Xytex’s PhotoFile or Addy’s birthday storybook—which in turn advertises and sells more product.

After all, what are dolls except instruments for simulating mothering? You can care for, burp, and diaper them, and truck them around. And the selection process has grown ever more complex. Long gone are the days when all baby dolls looked pretty much the same. At most, you could choose one with eyes that could shut, or one with a little pee hole. They were almost entirely white and fair.

Back then, having babies was fairly straightforward as well, at least if you were married and heterosexual. Either you could, or you couldn’t. Today those who can’t, whether due to infertility or lack of access to gametes, have options—as long as they have the money to pay for it.

So too with shopping for dolls. Choosing the right doll, with her attendant characteristics, history, and accessories, is the first part of the mothering simulation, a practice run for the later experience of choosing a sperm and designing a real baby. The American Girl line provides girls with the skills to be good future consumers in the reproductive technologies market.

As that market grows and changes, American Girl stays consistently ahead of the curve. Consider the American Girl Today line: twenty dolls without distinguishing dress or accompanying stories. They have varied skin tones, hair, and eye colors. Not unlike sperm donors, these dolls are identified by ordering codes rather than given names: GT 20D has light skin, blonde hair, and gray eyes; GT 18A has dark skin, textured black hair, and light brown eyes.

The idea here is for the consumer to make this blank-slate doll into whomever she pleases. The catalog reads, “She’s an American Girl like you! . . . Her adventures are your adventures. Her dreams are your dreams. This is her moment in history, and your moment, too.” Whereas the original American Girl Collection asks the buyer to step into Addy’s nightie or Samantha’s tea dress—Girl imitates Doll—the American Girl Today line reverses the fantasy: Doll imitates Girl. Each customer is encouraged to pick her match from the twenty-doll lineup. As with purchased genetic material, these dolls are the raw material onto which the consumer can then impose her own dreams and activities, thanks to accessories galore, including a Mini Macintosh computer, soccer gear, or an American Girl Horse and Riding Outfit.


The doll peddlers even offer a product analogous to cloning. My Twinn™ dolls, available by mail order, take the great leap forward to this most accurate of all reproductive techniques. Mail in a girl’s photo, a personal profile form, a hair sample, and $128.95, and in four weeks you will receive a poseable doll with that girl’s individual facial features, including matching eyes, skin, and hair. Matching doll and girl outfits and accessories are, naturally, available for purchase. With dolls, of course, the twinning occurs at the phenotypic level, but in an age of genetic obsession, will the genotypic be far behind? The My Twinn line uses a girl’s hair sample in order to match texture and color, but before too very long this same hair sample could be used by others to extract DNA for a not altogether different purpose.

Back on the Magnificent Mile, I follow the dazed girls, their dolls, and families into American Girl Place. Inside, consumers wander around, nearly hushed, as if at a museum. Girls stand agog in front of glass cases, eyeing the accessories they’ve seen in catalogs. After passing display after display of the historical dolls, I happen upon the glass case containing all twenty American Girl Today dolls, with their GT ordering numbers, dressed in identical red vinyl jumpers and plaid tights, and lined up like little soldiers ready for some kind of odd battle. Transfixed as any of the other customers, I realize that the reproduction industry has a lot to learn from American Girl’s marketing strategies. While sperm and egg banks’ sales soar and fertility clinics haul in the big out-of-pocket medical bucks, perhaps they should consider opening a retail showplace of their own.

As I step onto the escalator, I see that American Girl Place has a cafe where girls can have tea with their dolls. Why couldn’t a fertility corporation—call it American Baby Place—have a cafe where a customer could have tea with an egg or sperm donor? I see a marquee, advertising American Girl Place’s $25-a-ticket live musical, written and performed by real American girls. Perhaps American Baby Place could offer the “American Clones Revue,” a live musical written and performed by clones and their DNA doubles, where one could chat with the cast after the show, and where droves of dreamy-eyed consumers, having packed their American Girl collections off to the attic years before, could line up, money in hand, to order a clone of their very own.