American Girl

by HRM on February 21, 2013

A Conversation on The Dolls, The Dream, and The Life with photographer Ilona Szwarc

Ilona Szwarc

When I caught sight of Ilona Szwarc’s American Girls project online, I was instantly hooked. Szwarc captured images of girls with their American Girl doll counterparts, and the relationship between the dolls and the girls had a kind of magical tension. I clicked through the series, mesmerized at this glimpse into the lives of girls throughout the country.

One interesting tension was the level of resemblance between the girls and their dolls. The most appealing part of the American Girl doll franchise is, of course, the fact that you can design them to look like anyone. Anyone at all. One can imagine the wishful, more serious sentiment hidden behind this capability. What real life American girl hasn’t wished for a more perfect version of herself, or to resemble someone else?

This relationship between dreams and reality (and what this signifies for girls growing up in America) is at the heart of Szwarc’s series, which is an eloquent examination that recently won third place in the 56th World Press Photo Contest under the ‘Observed Portraits’ category. Both beautiful and intriguing, Szwarc’s photographs immediately engage the viewer while inviting a conversation on the complexities behind the images themselves.

– Carolyn Supinka

Ilona Szwarc

CS: What first drew you to the American Girl brand as a subject?

IS: I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called “American Girl.” I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is.

To me it felt really exclusive – only about Americans and for Americans – and I began to wonder where I fit in this scenario, and if I could ever fit in. Although the basic premise of those dolls is that you can create your ‘mini-me version,’ girls are in fact offered a limited number of choices. All of the dolls have mostly the same features –the only choices that are given to girls are skin color (three: light, medium and dark skin), eye color (around forty options) and many hairstyles (more than eighty options), yet the basic face mold and figure of all dolls stays the same: a slim, petite and androgynous shape. So I began to question further how individuality is manifested in this world and how is it communicated to children. As all the dolls really look the same, the only denominator of individuality relies in the hair style and fashion, of which girls are given the most possible choices. Constructing female identity happens through the choice of hair color and style, and the choice of clothes or fashionable accessories.

Those dolls definitely represent a set of currently accepted cultural values. The features of the dolls are standardized; they offer a democratic look: the same face and body shape. The dolls are fully clothed and very pretty. They are meant to carry a message of empowerment to girls. However, what I have noticed is that actually they only perpetuate traditional gender roles and keep the focus of girls on body grooming and dressing up as a way of identity maintenance.

Ilona Szwarc

CS: The spaces you photograph are so intimate, and are some of the most important spaces in a girl’s childhood: bedrooms, backyards. Did you pick these settings, or did the girls? Can you talk about why you chose these spaces, or why the girls chose them?

IS: When I first came to New York City I wanted to become a street photographer, so I began going out every day and photographing on the streets. I started noticing girls carrying dolls that look like them, and wearing matching outfits. At first, the girls just began appearing in the corners of my frames, then eventually I sought them out and I would stop them on the street and take their portraits. But I quickly realized that the photograph of a child with her doll does not really make sense on the street, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to photograph them in their homes. This way, my models would feel more comfortable and also it made more sense to see them in their own environments, where they actually play with their dolls.

Once I decided to photograph girls in their homes, there was a lot of production involved. First I would seek subjects who wanted to participate in my project, who owned the dolls and were passionate about them; I would talk to their parents and discuss details about the shoot, so the girls would know all about it. They were all very curious and excited for me to come to photograph them and wanted to participate in the creation of the photographs. So there was not a single structure to the way I would approach the making of the photograph –sometimes I would suggest something, and sometimes the girls would show me places they really liked.

Ilona Szwarc

CS: What did you talk about with the girls?

IS: I asked the girls to introduce themselves, to tell me a little bit about their lives, and about their dolls: when they got them, in what circumstances, what do they like or dislike about the dolls. I asked them how they usually play with their dolls. I also opened them up to talk about their futures, and their dreams.

CS: What was the relationship like between the girls and their dolls? Do you feel that the dolls reflect the girls, or are more symbols of what they aspire to be?

IS: From what I have observed, some girls relate to their dolls as their sisters, twins, or best friends. As the dolls constitute a part of the owner’s identity, they are both mini-me’s and pseudo-daughters.

The look-alike doll is a way that helps girls carve out their identity. Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through the mini-me doll play, and then when they’re ready, they leave the doll behind. On the other hand this is an imitation of what happens to adults who have children. Children look like the parents, so in a sense this is a very natural need to have a baby that looks like us.

It really varies –each girl would have a different idea. One of my subjects, Sarah, thought of her doll as herself. She said she would try out different outfits on the doll to see how she will look like in some clothes, and she would try out different styles on her.

Two other girls, sisters Ariane and Meridien, talked to me about how they look up to the dolls and this about behaving well and treating them more like role models.

Ilona Szwarc

CS: What was your own childhood like? Did you find anything reminiscent of your own childhood in this photography series?

IS: I was born in 1984 in Warsaw, Poland. At that time Poland was still under the communist regime and it was during my early childhood that it was going through the change of the political system. Right after the collapse of the Soviet regime, my father, who worked as a pilot on transatlantic connections, got my first passport and took me on a short trip to US during one of his flights. No words can describe what this experience meant for me and how much it changed my perspective.

Traveling to America when I was young, I always wondered what it would be like to grow up here. Once I moved to New York as an adult, I wanted to revisit those feelings I had back then. In this body of work, I explore enclosed worlds of young girls who are growing up in the US. I explore what girls – that is, future women — are influenced by in this culture. By investigating the American Girl Doll phenomenon –girls who passionately collect customizable mini-me dolls –I examine how female identity is constructed in contemporary consumer society.

Coming from a different country gave me the perspective to see that these dolls –with all the accessories –are the most luxurious toys ever invented, and I have not seen anything like that anywhere else. Thinking about the situation of children from around the world, my photographs place themselves on the other end of the spectrum from the documentary photographs of children living in extreme conditions in Africa for example. They show how there are extreme inequalities in the world.

Also, working on this project made me realize that America and therefore American Girl dolls are all about celebrating every person as an individual. Every child in America bears a sense of entitlement and self-importance. It is a very empowering message for girls –in a way every girl can be a star, who has a doll made after her. I don’t think there was an equivalent of such attitude in my country when I was growing up. I think this is helping girls build up confidence and strength of their characters.

Ilona Szwarc

CS: Were all of the girls photographed born in America? What do you think it means to be an ‘American girl’?

IS: Yes, all of the girls that I photographed were born in America. I think there might have been one exception. I photographed Holly, who was adopted by an American family from South Korea. She was adopted as a baby and she identified herself as American. English was her first language and this is the culture she grew up in.

What it means to be an American girl? I think it’s great to be an American girl and it definitely means a sense of importance, entitlement, a sense of luxury. It also means a sense of concentration and focus on “me.” I think girls who are growing up here are exposed to a great abundance of opportunities and they can create themselves as they wish.

But, at the same time, I am not American and I did not grow up in the US, so these are only my subjective observations and thoughts.

Ilona Szwarc

CS: The brand name itself labels these dolls (and their owners) as American girls. Can you talk about your observations of American girls, and femininity in America?

IS: As I said in the beginning, I was really struck by the fact that these dolls are called “American Girls”. Just the semiotics of this phrase were disturbing to me. I started to think why this company is defining American girls, and I had a strong reaction to the fact that they used this to appeal to such a broad audience. This mix of femininity and consumption was something I really wanted to address in this body of work.

I felt like this company was categorizing American girls, who will become future American women and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how.

I think there is a lot to talk about femininity in America, but something that stood out to me is that the product American Girls is meant for older girls, from 8 years old and up. This idea is foreign to me, as I remember in Europe, we would want to leave the dolls behind as soon as we could. By 6 years old we were all done with Barbies.. Here it seems to me that the company that manufactures the dolls wanted to keep their clients for a longer period of time, and they have done it successfully. Parents are adopting this as the idea that their daughters will have a longer childhood, and as an artist I am wondering what effect will this prolonged play have on a generation of women who are growing up like that. I am only posing questions and opening up the discussion by presenting my photographs that way. Do the dolls really extend their childhood? Or perhaps it takes away from the strength that girls could develop, and contributes to the infantilization of women?

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