Toys and games are important elements of child growth and development. When children play, they have fun. They also learn to perform and contest ideas making up their culture. The potential professional affiliations and skills offer an illustration of the roles that children learn about in the early years of their lives. Therefore, toys may serve as a site to research professional aspirations. In light of this, a question emerges: what do toys teach about professions and professionalism?
As a feminist communication researcher, I study toys primarily intended for girls – the dolls in the American Girl collection. Even though the doll sets demand an excessively high price, this brand has a cultural significance for the girls and women growing up in the United States because of the historical and contemporary connections found in deeply researched stories and intricately designed accessories (Solly). The American Girl brand started in 1986. Mattel, the American toy conglomerate, has owned the American Girl brand since 1998 and describes the brand as helping "generations of girls find courage, build confidence, and spread kindness" ("American Girl"). The original American Girl dolls represented historical figures: for example, Melody Ellison from the era of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Kit Kittredge from the time of the Great Depression in 1934. In addition to historical personalities, the American Girl depicts contemporary girls, including the Girl of the Year line introduced annually. These dolls portray modern girls who have special talents or hobbies and who navigate their lives and experience adventures through the prism of their talents. For example, Joss Kendrick’s passion is surfing, Gabriela McBride loves dancing and poetry, and Grace Thomas is interested in baking. As a rule, the talents of the Girls of the Year align with professional work and can inspire future generations to choose specific professions or develop professional qualities.
To narrow the subject, this essay examines the professional aspirations presented in the stories and media associated with the American Girl doll, Luciana Vega, released in 2018. Luciana is an aspiring 10-year-old astronaut and scientist who dreams to be the first person to walk on Mars. Luciana is unique because she is the first doll among contemporary characters to exclusively engage in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM (Strickland). This doll marks an attempt to address the high barrier for women and underrepresented groups to enter and remain in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. The former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan reflects on the importance of Luciana, saying that "a lot of girls are sometimes intimidated by STEM careers" and that characters like Luciana can let "girls of color around the world know they can be astronauts" (Strickland). Therefore, Luciana Vega contributes to the discourse about professions for contemporary girls and women.
The focus on professional aspirations represented in toys stems from the research about professionalism, which implies a set of assumptions that are taken for granted yet ambiguous, conflicted – and rarely questioned (Cheney and Ashcraft). The criticism of neoliberalism from the feminist perspective helps examine professionalism critically. Neoliberal feminism celebrates the achievements of individual women in the format of corporate and personal enterprises at the expense of confirming privileges based on race, class, and sexuality (Rottenberg). The essay argues that the lessons about professions and professionalism offered by the American Girl focus on establishing only a symbolic association with professional engagement. The emphasis on personal development through teamwork, leadership, and creativity promotes gendered professional capital that has limited resources to address potential imposter phenomenon and workplace harassment.
Dolls and Professional Aspirations
Scholars who study toys and playthings associate them with opportunities to display and obtain social rules and cultural values. Gender, race, and class norms are part of cultural production in toys (Foss; Rosner, Playing). As a product of culture, toys and texts associated with them represent professional futures and offer lessons about organisational life, professional identities, and work relations. Kuhn and Wolter report that young people tend to follow gender stereotypes in professional planning even in progressive locations, yet this connection between professional aspirations, career choices, and existing expectations is rather weak, suggesting that parental influence, regional or local specificities, educational programming, and other social factors, such as toys and games, may impact individual choices.
The American Girl brand promotes an active lifestyle, teaching children to understand who they are and to bring positive changes to their communities. The company does not explicitly mention preparation for careers and professional education. The company emphasises holistic development for girls, where professionalism and career aspirations may serve as implied targets. Barbour, Rolison, and Jensen argue that “individuals construct professional selves that originate in the early socialisation phases of professional training and are further developed as they are immersed in the rules, language, skills, and work of the profession” (137). As such, playing with dolls and engaging with the issues suggested by the toy brand may have an impact on future generations as they explore potential professions and careers and learn what it means to be a professional.
The academic research about the American Girl has not discussed professionalism yet. Scholars focus on exploring historic representations to argue that the company romanticises nostalgia to foster consumerism (Rosner, “The American Girl”) or presents a simplified and whitewashed version of history (Marcus; Valdivia). Marshall argues that the American Girl version of girlhood “reflects a gendered pedagogy of consumption rather than any lessons about empowerment or US history” (95). Scholars nevertheless have already noted the affiliations of the American Girl doll characters with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism refers to an approach to political economy that favours free market, economic growth, and capital accumulation. In feminist research, neoliberalism can be understood as “a sensibility or set of themes that privilege market-friendly notions of individualism, responsibility, and capitalization” (Thornton 273). The American Girl brand strives to empower girls, yet the empowerment offered by the brand is wrapped in a neoliberal frame of thinking, calling for girl power, self-determination, and femininity without changing the system that supports gender and other forms of discrimination and inequality (Rybas and Rybas; Zaslow). The criticism of neoliberal feminism provides a framework to examine professional belonging projected for future iterations of work, professions, and talents.
Reading Professions in the American Girl Texts
If Luciana Vega’s character offers lessons about professions and professionalism for the fans who play with the doll and engage with her story, it is important to explore these texts. The texts associated with the American Girl brand range from books that have traditionally defined the brand to mobile apps, short videos, feature or animated movies, and social media snippets that have appeared in recent years. The books create narratives about the characters, while multimedia texts offer alternative formats for the narratives as well as promote activities and engagements inspired by the characters. These texts offer rich data to examine the implications of the character for professionalism and being a professional. Further analysis draws from the content created for the 2018 Doll of the Year: the book Luciana by Erin Teagan and videos on the official American Girl YouTube channel and collected into a playlist.
Material objects and discursive constructions of practices associated with work produce professional identification and belonging. Being a professional relies on demonstrating special skills and knowledge in work contexts and maintaining professional identities (Caza and Creary; Caza, Vough, and Puranik). As with other professionals, the character experiences contradictions and dilemmas embedded in the tasks (Ahuja). She evokes professional skills and grows her professional potential through the problems and struggles that she deals with. Based on how the character and spokespersons address situations associated with work and how they communicate about their experiences, the analysis identifies lessons about professions and professionalism.
Lessons about Professions and Professionalism
First, the discussion of lessons about professionalism focusses on the material markers of being a scientist. How do the professionally defined objects, places, and activities signify Luciana’s belonging to the STEM sphere? At the Space Camp, the kids wear space and science clothes, and Luciana receives an official Space Camp flight suit upon check-in. The camp participants move from their habitats, with bunk beds for six campers, to the habitat common area, with screens streaming news from the international space station, and to the mission floor, with spacecrafts, greenhouses, and training equipment. Luciana finds her sense of belonging to the Space Camp through items signifying connections to space explorations. She wears a dress of “the colors of the nighttime sky—blue, red, purple, orange” (Teagan 4) and the star-shaped necklace. She also packs her “favorite pajamas from the planetarium” (Teagan 11) and “a pillow with the solar-system pillowcase” (Teagan 2). The items make her feel comfortable upon her arrival at the camp. The STEM-style objects can stimulate desires to purchase the toys and outfits, such as the lunar habitat, space suit, galaxy-patterned dress for the doll, or science kit, available from the American Girl brand.
In addition to the merchandise and branded items, the projects completed by the camp participants are indicative of their professional belonging: The campers perform soil experiments and design robots. The narrative refers to specialised terms (types of rocks and rockets), equipment (goggles, beakers), and scientific routines (wearing safety goggles, labelling samples) to create a world focussed on science. These details show Luciana’s familiarity with the camp space and speak to her abilities needed to complete the activities. The videos posted on YouTube provide additional illustration to the narrative. The spokespersons in the promotional videos as well as guests and hosts in the TV studio during the reveal wear blue overalls and walk through the NASA Centre (“A Day in the Life of Luciana”; “Meet American Girl’s 2018”). These descriptions and demonstrations create excitement about space exploration and make the STEM fields seem attractive and available. However, the price tag of almost $1,500 in 2023 (“Space Camp”) for camp participation keeps the dream of flying to Mars a distant reality for families. The financial barrier, obviously, does not appear in the texts promoted by the American Doll brand. Such silence indicates that each family needs to decide for themselves to what extent they can participate in the world of STEM, and such considerations reinforce class-based stratifications.
Further, the discussion focusses on the ways of thinking associated with professionalism. Adams argues that professionalism offers epistemologies that define "what is sayable, what is knowable, what is included, and what is excluded" (332). In other words, professionalism implies a system knowledge necessary for success in the neoliberal economy (Adams; Cheney and Ashcraft). What skills and epistemologies emerge in the texts associated with Luciana Vega?
The set-up of Luciana’s story establishes her responsibility for the success. She participates in a week-long space camp without her parents and friends. Even though she has an opportunity to develop her interests and meet new friends, the narrative suggests that Luciana must push back her longing for her family and her worries about the adoption of her new sister to emphasise the camp projects and her dream to be an astronaut. The discourse about work and life balance is significant for the neoliberal feminist analysis because those who are successful can do it all (Rottberg; Thornton). Luciana takes responsibility for adapting to the camp environment and controlling her own development. Luciana’s competitive record illustrates her drive. She obtains an acceptance to join the camp after two rejections, and this achievement communicates her resilience and perseverance necessary for a neoliberal subject (Rottberg).
Teamwork, leadership, and creativity are core skills expected from workers in the contemporary economy. Creativity defines neoliberal femininity as it aligns with passion, energy, and stamina (Rottberg; Thornton). Creativity is Luciana’s quality. Alex, one of the trainers, confirms her reputation by saying, "we need creative future astronauts just like you" (Teagan 6). Luciana’s ideas, however, may cause mistakes, as it happens during the building of a rover because she ignores the expectations about the rover’s weight. As the narrative develops, the team needs Luciana’s ideas, especially in designing a robot from junk parts, and the team acknowledges Luciana’s contributions. They note that Luciana has pretty good ideas and that making mistakes is normal. Ella, one of the teammates, concludes that "it’s the person who thinks a little differently from the rest who has the greatest chance of making a difference in this world" (Teagan 133). Even though Luciana’s creativity leads to various results, it is essential for her success as a professional.
In addition to creativity, Luciana develops her teamwork and leadership skills. These qualities are required for the success of the camp mission and future professional endeavours. Alex, the camp trainer, says that "for an astronaut team is everything" (Teagan 118). To compete in the robotics challenge, Luciana becomes the captain of one of the teams, and she encourages her team to work in a cohesive and productive manner. The team chooses the name Red Rover by brainstorming and voting, yet the team fails to collaborate in the rover-building challenge because Luciana does not rely on the knowledge of her teammates. Red Rovers get disqualified from the competition, but Luciana leads her team in continuing their experiment, building a successful robot, and even helping the team whose project the girls have damaged. As a result, the team members develop a strong friendship bond and receive an award for building a unique robot. Luciana’s leadership is meaningful for professional aspirations in the neoliberal style because it juxtaposes her character against the other participants of the camp, which promotes the emphasis on taking responsibility for mistakes.
Creativity, teamwork, and leadership permeate the simple activities inspired by the 2018 Doll of the Year: making star-shaped cookies, creating a purple hair streak, and organising a space-themed party (AG Life). The short episodes follow the style of videoblogs or reality TV shows created by and for teens and tweens. The five hosts are girls of Luciana’s age who perform activities and share knowledge in an easy-going manner imitating a conversation. Faber and Coulter critique girls’ digital production as an embodiment of neoliberal ideologies built on playful authenticity and the affective glamourisation of entrepreneurial logics. Making star-shaped cookies, creating a purple hair streak, and organising a space-themed party represent science and space exploration only by association, similar to the pyjamas from the planetarium or the star-shaped necklace.
Together with the claims for expertise in the STEM sphere and the emerging skills required for success in professional spheres, Luciana experiences difficulties, such as the imposter phenomenon and work harassment. Imposters exhibit doubt in their achievements, think of their success as fraud, and diminish their success (Parkman). In the story, Luciana completes a difficult docking manoeuvre with her team successfully, yet she concludes that the task has been “barely” (Teagan 151) completed. She compares herself to other kids: “my belly was starting to turn. I hadn’t expected there to be so many genius kids here. Did they all want to be astronauts like I did?” (Teagan 29). Luciana doubts her leadership abilities and questions her creativity, suggesting that her existing skills are not enough. In one of the episodes, she almost gives up her captain role, hinting at a potential burn-out situation. She particularly struggles to build connections with Ella, one of her team members, yet she develops a relationship with her after a few trials. These experiences illustrate the challenging process of finding self and connecting with others in a professional context.
The creators of Luciana Vega attempt to send a positive message to future experts in the field by welcoming diverse individuals. Luciana states that “astronauts come with hair in all shades and sizes and colors” (Teagan 32). However, the positive message is muffled because it serves as a reaction to a comment by another camp participant, James, who shares that he never saw astronauts with purple hair. The focus on the signature purple hair streak as a sign of diversity exemplifies a simplistic approach to intersectionality and diversity, a common criticism of the American Girl dolls (Marcus; Valdivia; Zaslow). In addition, the exchange about the purple streak in the girl’s hair highlights gender dynamics in the contemporary workplace, pointing at the possibility of workplace harassment. James adds that “it’s the like mom law” (Teagan 32), thus offending Luciana. In organisational contexts, harassers make offensive jokes and engage in insults, making the workplace environment hostile (Griffin), and Luciana encounters this experience. James clashes with Luciana and her team members throughout the narrative. What is important here is not only the professional rivalry that emerges in the narrative and is normalised in competitions, but the reactions that Luciana practices. She ignores the hurtful comments made by James during the spacewalk simulation exercise, yet she shares her resources to help him complete the task. Luciana’s team supports James’s team in the robot design task and transfers sponsorship to the boys’ team. Even though the story line introduces diversity to the workforce, it falls short of addressing instances of potential workplace harassment with force. Luciana seems not yet equipped to address the hostility exhibited by the fellow camp participant. She prioritises teamwork and camp mission at the expense of her own well-being. These emphases contributing to the gendered professional capital (Rottberg) essential for neoliberal progress.
The lessons about professions and professionalism offered by the American Girl are complex, if not contradictory. The presence of Luciana Vega in the competitively selected camp is promising, yet the STEM field remains difficult to access. The character experiences the imposter phenomenon even if she has extensive knowledge of science. Science-themed clothes, books, and accessories as well as science-inspired activities may promote an interest in the field. Teamwork, leadership, and creativity establish markers of professionalism and provide resources for cultivating professional epistemology. The current generation of girls and the future generations of women receive exposure to difficulties in developing leadership and teamwork skills and potential work harassment but may learn to address them through self-improvement or individual development. These lessons emphasise empowerment in the neoliberal frame of reference typical of the American Girl dolls.
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