'Girlhood empire of my youth': Playwright Justine Gelfman reconsiders the American Girl doll
For her new play In Sisters We Trust, or My ****** Up American Girl Doll Play, Justine Gelfman drew inspiration from two distinct times in her life. One was her time working at what she describes as a “female co-working space,” and the other was years earlier, when as a child, she was particularly fond of a popular toy line.
“I was always fascinated by American Girl dolls,” Gelfman says, “which was sort of like this overpriced girlhood empire of my youth. I was really into American Girl dolls. I had Kit, and then I sort of stole Samantha from my cousin. It felt like a really exciting community to be a part of when I was that age. And I think Barbie was sort of like an older woman, and then there were baby dolls. But American Girl dolls were dolls that were your own age, and they came with literature. So there were these accompanying books that had stories about where this girl was in history, and her family and her friends.”
In more recent years, Gelfman found herself looking at American Girl a little differently. “About five or six years ago, I started reexamining that company,” she says. “And a lot of what it preaches is well-intended but glosses over history and falls flat, and paints a reductive and sort of harmful view of America for young girls. And as I was reexamining it, I was also working at this female co-working space. And this community and co-working space positioned itself as a female utopia, for women of all definitions – you can’t see but I’m doing air quotes – and it offered a lot of perks and support for members but membership was $250 a month. And I was working there part time at the front desk and at the café, and I started to just see a lot of holes in both of these glossy, sort of well-intended, pink millennial companies that were targeted towards… one was looking at girls who were much younger, and then another was targeted toward a different age demographic of women. And I just became really interested in how both of these companies were using the illusion of feminist progress to sort of repeat and rebrand and profit off mistakes of the past.”
Gelfman says she was struck by how similar the co-working space was to an American Girl doll store. “I went to the store in Chicago – the first store was there, the American Girl doll store – and it really feels eerily similar to this female co-working space that I ended up working at like twenty years later,” she says. “Because there was, you know, a café where you could have tea with your doll. There was a library, there was a theater, there was a salon, there was a hospital. It felt like this giant house with all these rooms that you could sort of go on activities in with your dolls.”
That research and those complicated feelings toward a once-beloved childhood toy resulted in the comedic play In Sisters We Trust, or My ****** Up American Girl Doll Play, which imagines a “televised, Bachelor-style reunion” of now-grown American Girl dolls, who, like Gelfman, are now starting to question some of the stories they’ve been told about themselves. Reality glitches, worlds collide, and chaos ensues.
Director Jenny Lavery was attracted to the play’s onstage chaos. “I think what excited me about Justine’s script was the amount of moments of high theatricality,” she says. “There’s things exploding, there’s things catching on fire, there’s things that shatter… everything is breaking down in these worlds, which is juxtaposed with how glossy they want their image to be. This glossy world mixed with all of these things that are breaking down and catching on fire and falling apart. And then mixed with grown women in these costumes that are almost-exact replicas of their dolls is hilarious!”
Unlike Gelfman, Lavery didn’t grow up with American Girl dolls. “My parents thought that they were too expensive, and they were completely inaccessible for my family at the time,” Lavery says. “I had friends who had the dolls, and I felt really excluded by this company as a little kid. So I only got to know these dolls, really, in the past year, via this play. And it is fascinating as an adult to see the very talented mastermind behind the marketing and branding of these dolls.”
Of course, if you’re going to stage a play about American Girl dolls, you’re gonna need to get your hands on some of those dolls. Several appear in In Sisters We Trust, or My ****** Up American Girl Doll Play, including Gefman’s own childhood dolls, which, Lavery mentions, “are so well-loved! Their hair is so ratted and braided and beaded – they’re clearly very played-with.”
The other dolls in the play were borrowed from American Girl fans in the community, and Lavery says the owners were told about the title and tone of the play. “Yes, they’re aware of what the play is up to,” she says. “And [they] are excited for their dolls to be actors in the play.”
'In Sisters We Trust, or My ****** Up American Girl Doll Play' is presented by UT's Department of Theatre and Dance, and runs Oct. 20-29 at the B. Iden Payne Theatre