[8 December 2005]
According to its website, American Girl’s “mission is to celebrate girls”. The dolls, books, and other paraphernalia stamped “American Girl” are designed to “foster girls’ individuality, intellectual curiosity, and imagination”. The products are legendary among young girls, with millions upon millions of items sold since 1986. Company-sponsored events occur regularly across the U.S., including fundraising fashion shows and Girl Power campaigns. The latest is the “I Can” program, which promotes “self-belief” through little berry-colored stars that girls can stick on themselves and a mantra: “I can make a difference. I promise to try”.
Some of the more popular American Girl dolls include Marisol, who comes with tap shoes and ballet slippers and is described as “lively, confident, and imaginative”; Kaya, the 1700s Native American with dreams of becoming a leader among her people; and wealthy, turn-of-the-century Samantha, who befriends and helps a young servant. All the girls are spirited, unafraid to question authority and inclined to help those in need.
The American Girl philosophy sets high standards, so wholesome and pious they’re almost creepy. Just as older girls would kill for Barbie’s waistline and glistening hair, the young American Girl fans want to be as altruistic and beloved as Samantha and Marisol. Just as older girls would kill for Barbie’s waistline and glistening hair, the young American Girl fans want to be as altruistic and beloved as Samantha and Marisol. (Notable, however, is American Girl’s alignment with Girls Inc., a progressive organization for young women that recognizes issues of teen pregnancy, sexuality, sexual identity confusion, substance abuse and violence. Its website provides fact sheets for parents and girls on masturbation, abortion, STDs, and more.)
Like Samantha before her in An American Girl Holiday (2004), Felicity now has her own movie. Felicity: An American Girl Adventure, airing this and last month on the WB, is also freshly out on DVD (review copies of Felicity came without the extras store copies have, including behind the scenes cast interviews and on-set footage featuring the stars). Felicity (Shailene Woodley) is a precocious 10-year-old growing up in 1775 Virginia. Like her “times,” she’s rebellious. She doesn’t want to wear bloomers and dresses; she likes boys’ clothes. And she doesn’t want deportment training; she wants to work in her dad’s (John Schneider) shop. And she resists the expectations of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), that ladies should aspire to be good housewives and serve tea. Felicity just wants to be able to shout whenever she likes and find a job that interests her.
Felicity stumbles upon an abused horse, Penny, thrashing about and chained to a pole. Felicity’s friend Ben (Kevin Zegers) calls the horse “wild”. No, Felicity counters, “She’s independent”. So, it would appear Felicity and Penny will win their liberty simultaneously. Felicity sneaks out each night to feed Penny and win her trust, so that she can eventually take the horse away from her evil owner, farmer Jiggy Nye (Géza Kovács).
Penny takes up much of Felicity’s concentration, until the horse is strangely booted from the picture and the movie focuses on battling “patriots” and “loyalists”, mainly of the underage variety. Ben breaks his contract with Felicity’s father to join the soldiers at war, and prissy Annabelle (Juliet Holland-Rose) turns her nose up at Felicity and her family, patriot scum that they are. At this point, Felicity suddenly loses her distaste for deportment class and winds up smiling brightly as she, too, learns the correct way to serve tea.
When the boisterous lass performs the minuet at a swanky ball in a starchy blue dress, you wonder if she’s the same girl who once shoved her petticoat into boy’s breeches to ride Penny. It turns out that the desire for autonomy is not precisely Felicity’s, but “America”‘s. Felicity isn’t so much independent as, like all American Girls, borderline saintly. She looks after her sister during her mother’s illness, teaches Ben the value of his word, births Penny’s foal, helps to free Annabelle’s dad from jail, and, eventually, invites the nasty farmer to Thanksgiving dinner.
The message is clear. All girls should be good girls. They should learn how to be confident, yes, but also well-mannered, even-tempered, patient, forgiving and, well, perfect. Despite its contradictions, Felicity still offers Woodley’s feisty performance and adorable little face. A cross between Megan Follows and Punky Brewster, she’s warm and cheeky, and immensely fun to watch. I still can’t help but wish she’d stuck to the American Girl mantra and stayed true to the spunky girl she was before deportment classes.