History, Department of


Date of this Version

Fall 2008


Published in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth Volume 1, Number 3 (Fall 2008), pp. 321-328. Copyright © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Used by permission.


Dolls seem to be a ubiquitous feature of American girlhood, cherished objects played with by girls from many different cultures over many centuries. These three photos show American Indian girls playing with dolls in the early twentieth century. ... On the surface, we might think of dolls as innocent items meant to entertain children, typically (in our own era) girls. Don’t parents give dolls to children simply to amuse them? And don’t dollmakers construct dolls merely to fulfill a demand (and in the case of mass production, to turn a profit)? For many decades now, feminist scholars have read more into the purpose of dolls. Some have critiqued doll culture for instilling restrictive gender roles or promoting unhealthy body images for girls. In these scholarly works, dolls lose their innocence; they become a primary way that parents socialize girls into expected gender roles and even discipline female bodies. As one scholar puts it, many “feminist scholars have interpreted dolls as agents of a hegemonic patriarchal culture in which girls were passive consumers.” The Barbie doll and its mass marketing in the post-WWII era has particularly caught the attention of feminist researchers (and activists). Yet, more recently, other feminist scholars have argued that “if media advertising invades homes and shapes consumers by pushing products such as Barbies, consumers respond by reshaping mass-produced goods.” Having charted the ways in which doll play and its meaning have changed in the U.S. from 1830–1930, historian Miriam Formanek-Brunell remarks that “while some girls played house in the ways their parents hoped they would, many others . . . challenged adult prescriptions for play as they determined the meaning of dolls in their own lives.” Seen from these scholarly perspectives, how can we situate these photographs in time and place to gain a greater understanding of what this doll play meant among these Indian girls in the first decades of the twentieth century? Where did the American Indian girls in each of these photos get their dolls? Did their mothers or other relatives make them? Or did missionaries or teachers distribute them? What did these girls’ educators—whether family members or missionaries and teachers—hope that the girls would learn from playing with dolls? What did the girls themselves take away from the experience?

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