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From the July/August 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Dolls at a Distance

lthough this issue of the Horn Book largely concerns itself with award-winners, I have to confess that my own reading sights have been slightly lowered. Specifically, onto the American Girl™ 1999 summer catalog.

Back from a conference where we were pondering children’s access to pornography on the Internet, I thought this catalog would be the appropriate ameliorative. Unprotected by a password and unmolested by the Net Nanny, it is wholesome and shiny — but truth be told, it gave me the creeps of a kind not all that far removed from those I got when the pedophile-chasing policeman (also at the aforementioned conference) downloaded peeka-boo visual aids from sinister websites.

I’m not saying that the American Girl catalog is pornography. Not exactly. Still, its glossy color photos, attention to the minutest detail, even the way you have to turn the catalog sideways to view “life-sized” spreads of Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly (fully-clothed but nevertheless come-hithering) give it an allure that will be familiar to anyone who has ever hidden a magazine under a mattress.

But what the catalog has most in common with the rankest sort of pornography is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. With the clothes, the shoes, the pendants, the chairs and beds and quilts and candlesticks, the toys and school supplies . . . the fantasy is luxurious, pre-made, and all-encompassing; the fact that Molly’s letters home from camp are pre-written is just too sad to contemplate. These Girls don’t need girls — the catalog even offers “doll stands” so you can “steady her while you play.” If you don’t even need to hold the doll, are you playing or watching? The question is largely academic: at eighty bucks a Girl, hundreds more for her “accessories” (eighteen dollars alone for “Nightime Necessities”), the prices put all but the catalog out of reach for most American girls, who must (and do, apparently) content themselves with the fantasy at third hand. Like voyeuring on the web, the thrill is only in the looking.

Roger Sutton
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