American Girl is turning 25 this year and unfortunately my favorite doll from the original collection will not be celebrating the silver anniversary alongside everyone else. That doll is Samantha Parkington, the first one from the original group to retire in 2008. I remember the wave of shock that flooded me when I first found out that she was retiring. Shock was quickly followed by nausea and a fast spiral into depression as I contemplated my own Samantha, tucked up inside of her box in the attic of my parent’s house.
When I was little, I wanted to be Samantha. Like, it was a part of my life ambition list and definitely fueled my need to incorporate petticoats into my wardrobe when I hit 30. In the books I read religiously that accompanied the doll, Samantha was the girl of 1904, living as an orphan with her wealthy grandmother, Grandmary, in ritzy Mount Bedford, New York. Under her Grandmary’s watchful eye, Samantha was meant to grow up to become a proper young lady but even though she practiced at her sewing lessons and tried not to climb trees, Samantha was curious of the evolving world around her. She made a good friend in the maid next door, Nellie, and learned through stories about the disgraceful and scary factory work conditions that such a privileged girl did not know. She also taught Nellie some basic reading and writing lessons, as Samantha understood how lucky she was to have an education at a good school.
In addition to Samantha’s budding philanthropic nature, she also came with the best wardrobe out of any of the dolls. Taffeta dresses. Silk burgundy dresses. Striped pink dresses with lace pinafores and a wreath of roses for her head (yeah, you know that birthday outfit I’m talkin’ about). Other awesome factors working in Samantha’s corner included the fact that she had a personal chef who slipped gingerbread men cookies in her gold tin lunchbox and she received not one but two gorgeous dolls as presents throughout the book series and even gave one to Nellie. She also had a smoking hot uncle, Uncle Gard, who was single and owned a “model T” car which was supposed to be super noisy and flared up a lot of dust in the wind. Ladies, hold your monogrammed handkerchiefs fast- the Gard had a ‘lady friend’ Cornelia up until the Christmas book where he proposed marriage to her, a tidy exit out of singlehood that also ensured that there wouldn’t be any future books where we caught an illustration of him placing his hand on Cornelia’s stockinged knee in public. Heavens!
Samantha and I both looked the most alike, but this was where the problems began to settle in. While I was fervently pro-Parkington, as a child I also sported glasses. I was a brunette with bangs, long brown hair and glasses who also wore a school uniform that included a sweater and skort. In other words, blink too closely or pigtail my hair too quickly and you’d think I was a total Molly McIntire. This did not please me because out of the original five dolls (Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, Molly), Molly ranked dead last with me. There were a ton of reasons behind this, the vast majority insanely superficial for a 10-year-old. I wasn’t a fan of her wardrobe, her family had too many siblings for me to catch up with and the setting for the books took place during WWII, leaving behind this dreary overcast feeling in the books that was quite the departure from Samantha’s brave new world of the women’s suffrage movement.
Molly is often the American Girl doll that most girls seem to emphasize the most with and also really, really like in favor of Samantha. In the final book in her book series, Changes for Molly, she was dancing the lead in her school play, playing a character named Miss Victory. This routine required for her to wear her hair in curls and ditch the glasses, making Molly look pretty cute, actually. But then Molly kept running around outside in the rain with her hair wet and couldn’t see without the glasses and got sick the night before the performance, missing the entire thing. When I read this book, I wanted to scream at her multiple times. Who runs outside with wet hair every day when they have a show to dance in? Why didn’t you wear a hat Molly, to protect your curls? They have beauty people assisting with the show; they can fix your hair for you!! But Molly was plucky and whatnot so nobody except for me was bitching her out in this book.
Why was I so anti-Molly? Maybe it was because I had my own unsuccessful American Girl modeling show incident occur. Once, I participated in an American Girl fashion show where I dressed like Samantha in a ruffled red dress with strawberry print all over. I did my hair like hers too. Unfortunately, those glasses of mine were set to stick me in being entered in the Molly category so I ditched them at the last minute when I walked the runway. It did not go well. All the bright lights made it very hard for me to see the end of the stage. I didn’t get called back but this was okay. I had my doll and the photos of the event and that was all that mattered.
I know it’s easy to diss Samantha. Out of all of the girls, she was the least likely to get caught in an icy lake or riding bareback on a horse. She came from old money and was much more sheltered from the harsher realities of the world that Kirsten and Addy (good lord, especially Addy) experienced. If you didn’t know anything about Samantha or read the books that she came with, “prissy” and “spoiled” might be the first two words to come to mind in light of her collection of dresses and the sprawling mansion she lived in.
When I was little, most girls at my grade school did have the original American Girl dolls and typically these dolls matched their real-life physical appearance. It was a quietly known fact that the girls with Samantha and Felicity dolls had parents who understood which doll would be a success on the playground. Molly owners, on the other hand, knew they kind of got the s**t end of the stick. It’s not easy to make a doll with pigtails and glasses the envy of other girls.
But then a shift occurred over the years, the one I like to refer to as The Retirement Plan. American Girl retired Samantha, Kirsten and Felicity in rapid succession. They created other dolls like Josefina and Kaya (neither of which had a wardrobe you’d covet, sorry but not sorry, it’s the truth) and a bunch of dolls in the Girl of the Year category. Samantha’s friend Nellie briefly debuted into doll form and quickly got the retirement ax once Kit came around. No longer surrounded by old money Samantha, flame-haired Felicity, or the powerhouse of Swedish beauty that was Kirsten, Molly’s stock rose. All of a sudden, girls were actively flocking to Molly and purchasing her. The Washington Post described it as “the cult of Molly”, with young girls drawn to the doll that would ultimately set the bar for the girl they might later become. The Post even went so far as to describe it as, “It was easy to get suckered in by the other dolls. Samantha and her pretty sophistication. Kirsten and her fat blond ringlets. Josefina and her pierced ears. All of these dolls — smart and vivacious as they were — would have sat at the popular table in the modern elementary school cafeteria.”
Absolutely yes! In the American Girl-Mean Girls parallel universe, Samantha is to Regina George as Molly McIntire would try to be like Cady Heron. But Samantha would not have led the school around under the ruling of a Burn Book. C’mon you guys, did NONE of you read the books? Since when does having a nice wardrobe and money in the bank always mean that one has to be stuck-up and tyrannical? Pop culture certainly paints a convincing enough picture of that – even an American Girl doll for the 9 to 10-year-old set must be viewed as a threat for being “pretty”. The Washington Post returns to the argument that in comparison to Miss Parkington, “ Molly was different. Molly wore glasses. And plaid. In the book’s illustrations, Molly was relentlessly ordinary-looking. Her hair wouldn’t curl. Her socks were slouchy. Her pajamas were plain, striped button-fronts, unlike the frilly nightgowns worn by the other dolls.”
Molly, ordinary. Samantha, frilly. Got it. Samantha was just as hard-working and trustworthy as Molly was any given day of the week. They were both 10-year-olds in different eras of history and by default, Molly’s era would be plainer than Samantha’s. Molly lived during the time of “We can do it!” and rationing your butter for margarine and Samantha had roaring cars and fairly soon would be a 30-something in the Roaring ‘20s. I loved Samantha for being heartfelt and kind. She didn’t have it hard but she had the means to make other lives better and she did as much as she could for being a 10-year-old. They’re also both 10 years old. Let’s not try to expect so much out of a just barely double digit kiddo. When I was 10, I was definitely not doing as much as they were. My biggest claims to fame were outreading all the kids at the library, my crusade to get my parents to invest in cable TV, and nudging my parents to buy me a Samantha doll…which would later occur that Christmas.
Team Samantha always.
Images via fanpop.com