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‘Kit' brings a real girl to the big screen

To paraphrase Henry James: It's a complex fate, being an American girl.

You grow up being told you can do anything – run for president, win a NASCAR race, fly into space. But in the meantime everything you do is subject to contradictory scrutiny from the grown-up world. You get a barrage of mixed signals from parents, friends, teachers, television advertisements, even the toys you play with.

Who are you supposed to be, or to avoid becoming? A nerd? A ditz? A flirt? A tomboy? What kind of role models are those make-believe princesses, those Bratz and Barbies, to say nothing of the real-life Britneys, Lindsays and Mileys? What's a girl to do?

The short-term answer: Go to the movies. In particular, to “Kit Kittredge,” the first American Girl movie to be released theatrically. (Three precursors are available on DVD.) It opened Wednesday, and not a moment too soon. Like their aunts, mothers and older sisters, young girls find themselves relatively neglected by the Hollywood studios. (Exceptions: “Enchanted” and “Juno.”)

In the 1940s and '50s the Walt Disney brand of wholesome, animated features was built on the grace and pluck of fairy-tale heroines, but Pixar, the heir to Disney's tradition, has yet to make a movie with a female protagonist. And while everyone loves Hermione Granger and Princess Fiona, they are sidekicks to Harry Potter and Shrek.

A movie for the underserved

If “Kit Kittredge” turns out to be a hit, there will be the usual expressions of surprise from cultural commentators. This is always the reaction when a previously underserved segment of the population turns out in large numbers for a movie, whether it's blacks lining up for the latest Tyler Perry film, evangelical Christians flocking to “The Passion of the Christ,” or, just last month, women of various ages and backgrounds embracing “Sex and the City.”

(It is worth noting that not one of those movies was distributed by a major Hollywood studio, and that both “Kit Kittredge” and “Sex and the City” were released by divisions of Warner Brothers that the parent company has decided to shut down.)

Kit Kittredge's audience was already there. Since 1986, when Pleasant T. Rowland started selling them by mail order, 14million American Girl dolls have been purchased, along with (according to the official Web site, 123 million books about their adventures. Kit Kittredge, an aspiring reporter growing up in Cincinnati during the Great Depression, is part of a diverse trans-historical sisterhood including Addy, a black girl growing up during the Civil War; Josefina, who lives in 1820s New Mexico; and Julia, from the 1970s. Since 2001 these old-fashioned young ladies have been joined by modern “girls of the year,” the newest of whom is named Mia.

All of them seemed to be present when I went to see “Kit Kittredge” on the first night of its run at a Manhattan theater. I was one of a very few fathers in a crowd largely composed of mothers, daughters, sisters and girlfriends. While males are hardly banished from the American Girl universe, they tend, fittingly enough, to play supporting roles. Many of the dads in “Kit Kittredge,” including Kit's, have gone away to look for work.

In the Ziegfeld audience, meanwhile, the scattering of live men and boys was greatly outnumbered by the 18-inch-tall inanimate members of the audience. In addition to my daughter and two of her friends, I arrived with Felicity, Emily and Jess, and we soon lost count of the Samanthas, Addys and Mollys – and, of course, the Kits – who surrounded us.

Playing with the anti-Barbie

Look at one of the dolls, and you see a kind of anti-Barbie, a sturdy, nonsexualized body whose proportions are more or less those of a real girl. Her clothes are both practical and authentic, and her activities are a healthy mix of chores, games and career preparations.

While some of the historical adventure books acknowledge that opportunities for girls – especially poor and nonwhite girls – were limited in earlier times, they emphasize optimism, good will and self-reliance as the ever-available antidotes to injustice or deprivation. This is certainly the lesson of “Kit Kittredge,” which does not shy away from showing the hard realities of the Depression, including homelessness and unemployment.

It celebrates, in the midst of hard times, an appealingly ordinary brand of heroism. Kit is brave, smart, determined and kind, but never off-puttingly full of herself or intimidatingly superior. You would want her for a friend. You could easily imagine yourself in her place.

Which may be at least some of what girls want, and what they get from American Girl. I have spent a lot of time, over the years, with Felicity and some others of her kind. She doesn't say much, and even though her expression is always fixed in a pleasant smile, she seems to change according to the moods and interests of her playmates. She is an athlete, a musician, a clothes horse, a bookworm, a pet owner, a loner and a confidant. A typical American girl, as far as I can tell.