Culture  /  Argument

Reading Disability History Back into American Girl

The author's personal history with the dolls, and an argument for American Girl to make a new doll with a disability.

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.”[1] 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.