Reading Disability History Back into American Girl
I recently spent a series of afternoons digging through closets at my parents’ house, searching for my sisters’ and my once beloved American Girl collection. In boxes and boxes of doll clothes, furniture, and accessories, I found Molly McIntire’s nightstand, complete with a doll-sized hot water bottle inside. The hot water bottle was adorned with the phrase “Pleasant Dreams,” both a twist on “sweet dreams” and a nod to Pleasant Company, which created and distributed American Girl until Mattel bought the company in 1998. My immediate thought as I held the hot water bottle between my fingers was, Wow, Molly is a sick girl icon. Why else would she keep a hot water bottle in her bedside table?
I’m not alone in this thought. “We need an American girl doll who was an overachiever and is now chronically ill,” reads a recent meme from @PinkSaltCollective with Molly McIntire, the World War II–era American Girl doll at its center. Every sick and disabled person knows that you must always keep all your tools at arm’s reach. At the moment, the drawer in my bedside table contains my heating pad, prescription medications, CBD suppositories and salve, a cane, and a cupping set with accompanying lotion. I have a portable version of these same supplies I never leave home without. The meme could not have felt more accurate. I wondered what else I would discover about Molly’s story in my adulthood through the lens of my disability.
I first read the Molly books with my mom when I was two years old, and the defining Molly fact I remembered was her hatred of turnips. In my recent reread of Meet Molly, I was struck by the way her resistance to eating said turnips from her family’s victory garden was treated as a moral failing. Mrs. Gilford, the family housekeeper, scolds Molly, saying, “Wasting food is not only childish and selfish, it is unpatriotic.” She tells Molly that her father, a physician away at war, may be wishing he could eat what is on her plate.
I recognized the tools of guilt right away, ones I have attempted to resist as multiple chronic illness diagnoses rewrote interactions I once dismissed as commonplace. How many times was I told I was a picky eater? Or braced myself for an eye roll from friends as I explained for the umpteenth time at lunch that I was not going to eat (for fear of ruining the rest of my day). How many Southern moms had I been afraid of as a child, ones who would scold me with their eyes and their insistence that I finish the food on my plate? Sure, Molly was a nine-year-old growing up during wartime, but I resented that war was used as an excuse to perpetuate the notion that sick kids are unreliable narrators.
In recent years, fans and scholars alike have written extensively about the lack of disability in the American Girl franchise across both the historical and contemporary collections. Disability scholar Sami Schalk argues that existing inclusion of disability in American Girl is a tool of ablenationalism, using the figure of the American Girl to “[tout] the superiority, morality, and exceptionalism of the United States.” That same ablenationalism is evident in Mrs. Gilford’s chastising Molly, tying the completion of her dinner to patriotism and her father’s well-being. Similar sentiments are littered throughout the Molly series, small comments on lack of patriotism that only serve to guilt young children instead of trying to teach them empathy.
In the final book in the series, Changes for Molly, Molly is chosen to star in a benefit show at the Veterans’ Hospital as Miss Victory and to perform a tap dance solo. Molly spends days with her wet hair in curlers to perfect her look, so much so that she ends up with a cold and misses the show. I recognized my pubescent self in Molly again. I, too, was a dancer, and there were many times when I was in too much pain, too bloated, or too fatigued to dance, but I pushed through. Ballet taught me to ignore pain and discomfort at the expense of my own well-being. In Molly’s case, her mother insists she miss the show, and I wonder how my life would have been different if I had been given permission to listen to my body.
In the same book, Molly’s father returns home as the war nears its end, starting a job at that same Veterans’ Hospital. As Molly grew, and her pain with it, I question whether her pain would be dismissed as growing pains, simply part of becoming a woman. In my disability journey, my mom, a nurse, was the person I had the hardest conversations with because her conception of what “sick” looked like was so different from the way I presented. And yet she was also my biggest advocate. Her voice and expertise in response to my medical providers often made all the difference. I cannot help but imagine a situation in which Molly’s illness would be characterized as “not sick enough” or “not disabled enough” by her father, especially in comparison to the veterans he treated.
The more time I spent mining the Molly series and analogous history, the less surprising I found the ablenationalist rhetoric and dismissive comments about disability. After all, Molly was growing up in the wake of the eugenics movement both at home and abroad. She was born only seven years after Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruling that permitted the sterilization of disabled people, a decision that has never been overturned. The shadow of eugenics and the propaganda of war only served to strengthen the tools of ablenationalism present in Molly’s world.
I owe my love for history in part to the American Girl historical collection, and my parents’ dedication to filling my sisters’ and my childhood with history, often history that was difficult to swallow. My adult longing to see my sick and disabled body in an American Girl character is not a mere desire for disability representation, but rather a longing to find a political identity of disabled people like me.
Instead of taking until my early twenties to learn about the history of disability and the activists fighting for justice, I would have seen it come alive through the lens of American Girl.
As Schalk points out, “American Girl found a way to introduce age-appropriate representations of slavery, the New Orleans yellow fever epidemic, and the Great Depression, so why not some history of disability?” Instead of glossing over the way the American eugenics movement set the stage for compulsory sterilizations, Japanese concentration camps, Nazi genocide, and medical experimentation, I would have understood the interconnectedness of ableism with racism and imperialism.
I would have seen myself in the pioneer activists of the League of the Physically Handicapped, or the health cadre of the Black Panther Party, or the leaders of the 504 Sit-Ins. I would have been able to name the way activists have seen their struggles tied up in each other for centuries, the way self-determination for their own communities and collective care and survival were paramount. I would have been strengthened by having what the late disability activist Stacey Milbern referred to as “crip ancestorship.” In Milbern’s conversation with fellow disability activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, they wrote: “so often when we start telling the stories of disability, we realize they are woven into every thread of our lives.” Even when our ancestors’ conceptions of disability may not align with ours, “running back to look for our disabled ancestors is political work.”
As Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, in a world that wants to eliminate disabled people, “it is radical to articulate that we have a past and lineages and cultures.” I want that for my younger self and for my adult self. It might have changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of so many of my disabled friends who are having to undo years of internalized ableism in the midst of trying to care for themselves. As an avid reader and writer of middle grade and young adult fiction, I want that for disabled readers of all ages. Young sick and disabled children, like Molly McIntire, will be forced to reckon with an ableist society way too early, and so too should their historical literature.
- Valerie Tripp, Meet Molly (Pleasant Company Publications, 1986), 11. ↑
- Even recent attempts at disabled contemporary American Girl characters have produced mixed results. Authors of the 2017 American Girl of the Year, a young Black girl with a stutter, name a speech therapist consulted in writing of the novel. I question why proximity to disability is enough for American Girl and not hiring a disabled writer with that specific disability. ↑
- For more insight into the way Molly is used by American Girl collectors to encourage toxic patriotism, see the work of public historian Rebekkah Rubin. ↑
- Valerie Tripp, Changes for Molly (Pleasant Company Publications, 1988). ↑
- In the accompanying nonfiction book, Welcome to Molly’s World, 1944: Growing Up in World War Two America, a full-page spread is dedicated to the atrocities of Nazi Holocaust (p. 42–43), while discussion of US complicity in Japanese concentration camps is reduced to small section on p. 21 in which they are described as “special camps.” ↑
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), 248–50. ↑
- Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work, 250. ↑
Marissa J. Spear is a disabled writer, emerging historian, community health advocate, and program evaluator based in Northwest Arkansas. She received her BA in Health Equity Studies with a minor in Public Health from Goucher College and a Certificate in Professional Achievement in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Journal of Extension, Preventing Chronic Disease, All of Us (the Disability History Association’s peer-reviewed blog), Monstering Mag, and Chronically Lit. In her spare time, she enjoys writing young adult fiction, reading fanfiction, analyzing the quality of public restrooms, diagnosing her friends with chronic pelvic pain, and researching the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party. Find links to her work at www.marissaspear.com.