Call Me Isabelle:Baby Names, Girl Dolls, and the Rise of Antiquarian Feminism

I’m a private connoisseur of baby names. Beneath humble, socially acceptable wishes only for a healthy baby with ten toes and ten fingers lurk all sorts of indulgent yearnings, and some of them must find their way into that name.  Often the name choice seems a natural, organic thing, adhering closely to parents’ personalities. Sometimes, delightfully, the name cuts against the grain. An Ashley emerges from a hipster family; an accountant christens a whimsical Piper. A secret dream for a daughter materializes.

In the statistical aggregate, girls’ names are a cultural artifact, certainly as anthropologically valuable as a pottery shard or a necklace. They hint at the prevailing feminine ideals and aspirations of the day.

From the 1890s to the 1930s, Americans had the most affection for the sanctified name “Mary.” I imagine that successive waves of Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants in the early 1900s helped to boost Mary up the chart. They put a new inflection on the American Puritan habit of naming girls after virtues (“Prudence:” the Madison of the 1620s). Mary held steady as the #1 name all through the 1940s, but in real numbers she began to slide in the 1950s. As Marys had their own daughters in the postwar years, they might have aspired for their girls to become more secular, assimilated, and modern. It was a new age, the optimistic American Century.

The popular 1950s names capture the decade’s fabled if admittedly overgeneralized zeal for conformity. The McGirl name Jane reached its peak popularity during these years, and many of the top names—Linda, Patricia, Karen, Donna, Cynthia, Sandra—seem almost defiantly ahistorical, lacking firm touchstones in culture, nationality or religion. All but a few of them end on the softening, gently benign “ah” sound. If femininity could have its own phonic, it might well be that.  It’s hard to imagine a “Sandra” or a “Linda” as mannish or overbearing, as if the cadence of the name itself would protect against the 1950s specter of a tomboyish girl. Nor are these exotic or feisty “ethnic” names that proclaim themselves contrarily and uniquely in the world. This was not a time when parents aspired to have the most unique and offbeat girl, or name. Fitting in to the American consensus and being an Every Girl Jane, safely fungible with others, was considered a good, even patriotic, thing.

The most popular girls’ names of our own decade—Isabelle, Lily, Emma, Abigail, Madison, and Olivia—look like inverted icicles on a graph. They skyrocketed exuberantly and nonlinearly from statistically invisible in the early 1900s, to the uncontested frontrunners by 2005. These names are bridesmaids to “Emily,” which was the single most popular American girl’s name for many years, although unseated by its cognate Emma in 2010. Canada’s census is similar to that of the United States. In the first half of 2010, the three most popular girl names were Emma, Emily, and Olivia.

These are all lovely, pretty names—earnest, formal, dignified, and strong. They’re also palpably old-fashioned if not anachronistic. They convey strength with tradition; independence with convention; spunkiness with formal propriety; and rebelliousness, but with a softening, antique patina. The pantheon recalls Henry James heroines. A friend of mine calls them “old lady names.”

The feminist chic decade of the 1970s had snubbed these currently vogue names. It makes sense. The future held such promise for girls in the 1970s, and the present was an exciting, revolutionary eruption against the past that made relics of its Emilys, Abigails and Lilys, too.

But 19th-century names have resurged today in a culture that looks propitious for middle-class girls and women, who are the emerging winners in schools, the professions, and even in neuroscience, where the much-touted linguistic and social aptitudes of the female brain have come into economic fashion. A bevy of research in 2010 asserts girls’ and women’s superiority in colleges and corner offices. Hannah Rosin of the Atlantic proclaimed “The End of Men” as jobs and managerial styles shift more toward conventionally feminine domains. Women outpace men in the achievement of college degrees. They are a majority in law schools. In 2009 for the first time they earned more Ph.D.s than men. College-educated women now out-earn their male peers, at least in the early years of their careers; and they have weathered the recession more easily than men, with markedly fewer layoffs.

It’s a curious paradox: Western culture in the 21st century belongs to girls of the middle and affluent classes whom we name from the 19th century.

The paradox becomes clearer, or at least richer, if we consider another ubiquitous artifact of a girl’s life: dolls.

During those miasmic post-WWII years of feminine conformity, in a country bursting at the seams with pregnant Donnas, Lindas and Sandras, Ruth Handler had a fateful epiphany about her daughter.  Barbara, she noticed, preferred to play with cut-out paper dolls of adult women rather than with three-dimensional, lifelike baby dolls. In 1956, baby dolls were, literally, babies. Girls “played” with them by pretending to be their mothers and nurturing them. Domesticity bored Handler. Pretend domesticity bored her daughter just as intensely. But in her shopping trips Ruth found no suitable dolls or alternatives for Barbara. Handler stumbled across her life’s muse on a trip to Europe in the form of what a documentarian would later describe as a “slutty doll from Germany” named Lilli, a leggy, busty sex toy intended for men. Where men saw titillation Handler saw liberation.

Handler’s Lilli-inspired doll, “Barbie,” debuted at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York, flaunting herself in a skimpy black and white striped swimsuit and her signature ponytail. She was the first adult toy doll in the US—the first doll with breasts (and how). Today, if all of the Barbies ever purchased were laid blond head to high heel-deformed toe, they would circle the equator seven times over. Barbie has been blitzed with attention and criticism in media and pop culture, and even scholars have tapped her dry.

It’s low-hanging fruit to elaborate political critiques and scholarly theory on something nonbiodegradable that lacks the means to defend itself or talk back while reality has a way of refusing to stay put. But there is still this delicious irony at the core of Barbie’s biography: what would become a feminist dishonor, a mark of sexual oppression, started as a feminist inspiration. Barbie’s breasts augured freedom and a carefree, adventuresome, self-realized life. She stood for womanhood unyoked from motherhood and, from the ground level of a 1959 littered with maimed baby dolls under the charge of seven-year-old mothers in training, that was a feminist brainstorm. Handler entrusted the doll with her own daughter’s name, proud to imagine her girl more “Barbie” than “Barbara,” more Swinging Single, less Mom.  “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to become,” Handler explained in her 1994 autobiography. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

When Handler died in 2002 several columnists across the country emerged from the closet of Barbie love to rehabilitate and praise Ruth’s creation, in the New York Times’ words, as the first “adult looking doll” that “allowed children to think about who they wanted to grow up to be rather than who they wanted to grow up to nurture.” One eulogized Barbie as her touchstone for imagining a future defined by “the jet set, whatever that was, and groovy digs with a shag rug, fuzzy pink makeup stools and heart shaped mirrors.” Those who played with Barbies were just “a tad more with it than our homey sisters who cuddled plastic dolls.”  Barbie belonged to the future. So do girls, for that matter.  She was “a woman with a history, but no past.”

In the winter of 1983, just before Christmas, Pleasant Rowland spent a frustrating morning scouring the toy stores of Manhattan. She faced the same dilemma that Ruth Handler had 30 years earlier. She found no good dolls for her young nieces to play with. Only Barbie. By this time, Barbie had descended from avatar of liberation to slave of objectification, from too outré to too conventional. Hillary Rodham Clinton, still unknown and, therefore, perhaps, still an unmodified feminist, had vetoed a Barbie for Chelsea as “too sexist” a doll. Rowland, too, wanted something more girl-like, and less demeaning or sexually trivial, for her niece.

Barbie never saw Samantha Parkington coming. She was looking so intently to the bright horizon and future for girls that she missed Rowland’s sneak attack from the past.

Like Handler before her, Rowland created dolls to fill what she perceived as a need and a gap in the market. “American Girl” dolls are inspired by distinct, easily sliced moments of US history, including a slave girl, a Victorian orphan, “Kit,” a clever Depression Era girl, a Revolutionary War girl, an Irish factory worker girl, and Samantha Parkington, an early 20th century girl. (In 2009 American Girl released a new historical doll, Rebecca Rubin, only to discover that their plastic resurrection of a nine-year-old Jewish immigrant girl from New York’s tenements shared a name with an “armed and dangerous” international eco-terrorist and prolific arsonist on the FBI’s wanted list.)

Accompanying books and accessories detail each doll’s history and create miniaturized virtual dollhouse worlds for her. The Company’s facts are meticulously checked, and the garnishing narrative details often fascinating, unusual, and thoughtfully attuned to the particular interests of children. The stories do wrestle with challenging, unpleasant themes. But the historical gestalt is delicately airbrushed and cherry-picked like the “living history” reconstruction of colonial Williamsburg from which Rowland drew much of her inspiration.

Rowland’s American Girl dolls are the fastest selling ever, and the focal point of a pre-teen girls’ mania. The graph of American Girl sales figures most likely would overlay with those for the meteorically popular names of the largely middle-class and affluent girls who purchase these dolls and ensembles for over $100 a pop. In 2000 Rowland sold the company to Barbie’s home corporation, Mattel, for 700 million. By 2010 they had sold 18 million dolls and 132 million books (over 25 percent of their sales are non-US), and marketed well over 3,000 products. Living under the same corporate roof, Barbie slid as her old-fashioned alter ego Samantha ascended.

Children still have their full imaginative faculties intact, so they probably customize and animate their dolls in their own ways. The dolls most likely reveal less about the girls who play with them and more about the women who purchase, banish or pre-screen them. “When you buy an American Girl product” for your daughter, says Adrienne Fonatanella, who oversees Barbie and American Girl as president of Mattel’s “Girls” unit, “you buy into a long term philosophy.” Critics and devotees agree that American Girl promotes a “way of life,” an enveloping “philosophy,” or what one critic less charitably indicts as a “cult” or “parallel universe,” replete with its own websites, magazines, “Innerstar University” virtual world, fashion shows, birthday parties, matching Mom and Daughter and Doll clothing lines, and furniture.

What is this “way of life” and the “long-term philosophy?” For their part, mothers appreciate that the dolls insinuate an historical education, of some form, into their children’s play, which reassures a generation of middle-class parents notoriously consternated about missing brain development opportunities in their children’s leisure time or sleeping hours (“The idea is to breed girls who are smart, just not so smart they can do the math” and comprehend the exorbitant doll prices, a contrarian from Canada complains). “Mothers who buy the doll figure they’re not just buying a doll—they’re buying an education,” explains Dorothy Singer, a psychology professor at Yale. More important, though, mothers love American Girl’s “empowering message,” and its “embrace of multiculturalism.” And, perhaps most of all, the absence of Barbie-like sexuality, or any sexuality. Indeed Rowland wanted to offer an alternative—an antidote, even—to dolls such as the putative bimbo Barbie.        

American Girl appeals to middle-class mothers and girls in a way that defies caricatures of both traditional femininity and feminism. The dolls and their devotees are not quite of a type with either. American Girl is old-fashioned, but not antifeminist, per se. The dolls aren’t weak, submissive or mild characters; nor are they threatening, subversive, abrasively rebellious, or sexually unsettling. They convey what are really a set of feminist-prone values that have acquired the absolving patina of history. The dolls exhibit the virtues of pluck, smarts, and spunk, but diluted of their pungency by the workings of history and time. These traits elicit more admiration and affection retrospectively, like the works of a deceased artist, and in any case America often admires female rebels and feminists when they are dead. No one can accuse an American Girl of radicalism, grating feistiness or feminism. But nor is she a meek figure. The spirit and American Girl “way of life,” as with our name fashions, is probably best summarized as antiquarian feminist.

I don’t mean to sound like a doll crank. I can understand the appeal, certainly, of American Girl and the antiquarian feminist mannerism that it embeds. There is something reassuringly safe about having your girl play with a doll that is not of the present or the future, which are, respectively, dangerous and uncertain places. When my goddaughter was turning 11, I found myself momentarily debating between an American Girl accessory as a gift or an item of clothing that had the baffling, unnerving but apparently urgently-cool words “JUICY COUTURE” imprinted across the rear. I didn’t fancy either choice. The enticing image of myself as the hipster godmother, down with the Juicy Culture, whatever that may be, trespassed quickly across my mind before I remembered that I didn’t want any boy thinking my goddaughter to be juicy. It felt like my consumer choice was between a frumpy, antiquated vision of girlhood or a racy cheap one.

Pleasant Rowland’s invention was a gesture of caring and stewardship toward girls, just like Ruth Handler’s, but one inspired, significantly, by a vision of past restoration instead of future liberation. The American Girl way of life, while not weak or conventionally feminine, isn’t “progressive,” in any literal or figurative sense, either. If nothing else, it seems that being a progressive, the new term of art for the American liberal conscience, must mean being forward-looking, and having a love of the perfectible and unknown future over the flawed but known past.

Revisited from the vantage point of American Girl in our time, there is something brave and touching in the otherwise unremarkable fact that Handler entrusted girls with a sexy, adult woman doll, as if female sexuality were nothing to fear or dread, as if girls could play with it, in many senses—as if imagining being a grown-up woman in the future might be more beguilingly unfettered and boundless than playing at being an eternally pre-teen and sexually latent historic dead girl.

But I get the sense that American Girl succeeds precisely because it reconciles competing impulses of a confused moment, which is what every idea, person, or object that charms us manages to do. It’s a moment when the middle and affluent classes who name their girls Isabelle and buy them American Girl dolls want to embrace and nurture girls’ success and growing clout, while de-clawing that success of the currently unpopular (even politically unmentionable) feminism that secured and defends it. They want girl power for their daughters, but they want girl power that is softer, and not so socially objectionable or polarizing.

I have only a son, but if I had a girl I would probably hope privately for a similar resolution, or comfort, for her. Few parents aspire after all to have children who grow up to be at social loggerheads, or subversive—even if we do dream for them of the opportunities and ambitions that politically or socially subversive acts often obtain for us in the first place.

What’s in a name or a doll, though, you might be thinking. Certainly, these artifacts on their own are harmless enough. But it seems to me that like any other worthwhile relics, the shared antiquarian feminist manner in name and doll encapsulates a more consequential social drift.

Consider a cultural paradox that in some ways mimics the feminist antiquarian style: Girls and women are succeeding in school and the economy at a time when popular views of gender roles and differences are more conservative, even retro, than they have been for some time. Nature over nurture, for example, has been a resurgent gender ideology for many years, most widely and popularly distilled in the mega-bestseller Women are from Venus, Men are From Mars and other defenses of “natural” female and male roles and female roles. Single-sex public schools and classes are back in vogue, a 19th-century model of sex-segregated schooling revived as a cause among wealthy American patrons of girls’ education such as Ann Tisch, benefactor of the Young Women’s Leadership schools.

Likewise, ideas about motherhood, staying at home and “opting out” of the workforce in western cultures are more retro and domestically tethering than they were three decades ago. And young women’s newfound earning power and academic clout hasn’t made them more sexually bold or confident in their own skins: attitudes toward sexuality among college-age women are more timid and hesitant than they were even twenty years ago, according to historian of sexuality Dagmar Herzog. In the popular imagination, the nineteenth-century idea of natural sex differences in thought and cogitation has been gently refurbished even in vernacular brain science, oxymoronic as such a thing may sound. An emblematic book on cogitation has the simple, declarative title, Boys and Girls Learn Differently!

On the one hand we’ve soared ahead and, on the other hand, we’ve seen the gains given back, or at least softened and undercut in their power, by antiquated cultural fashions that revive pre-feminist attitudes about everything from sex difference to neurology.

In short, imagine a world in which girls and women are powerful without being powerful. That is the antiquarian feminist mannerism.

“Who’s Felicity Merriman, a friend of yours?” I asked a weedy, garrulous neighborhood girl (an Emily) some time ago, before I first encountered Rowland’s brainchildren. Felicity! A strange neo-Puritan girl’s name, I thought to myself.

Emily plays soccer and aces her classes and interacts confidently with the children on her street like the lawyer—or the vet, or the doctor—that she wants to be when she grows up. I know her mother and it would be fair to say that she wants her daughter to live the feminist dream while fitting in amiably to an anti-feminist moment. It’s not an unusual dream.

Emily giggles and tells me, no, Felicity’s her Revolutionary War doll. She’s an American Girl.

Pamela Haag is the author of the forthcoming book from HarperCollins, Marriage Confidential: Love in the Post-Romantic Age (The World of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Marriage Rebels who are Rewriting the Rules). She has a Ph.D. from Yale University and has published in a variety of venues, ranging from scholarly books and journals to National Public Radio, The American Scholar, the Christian Science Monitor, Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Washington Post, and Ms. Magazine, among others.