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Girls and Dolls: A Note on Images from the Latest Issue of Girlhood Studies

One of Mandrona's dolls, made when she was 8.

Most of my work deals with text, so it was a bit of a treat when I opened up the files for the latest Girlhood Studies and found them chock full of images of dolls. This journal covers many themes related to the challenges and dangers facing girls all over the world – it’s always such a pleasure to work on but I was particularly excited to see an issue that also speaks to the creative and serious play of girlhood. Dolls, needless to say, are cultural artefacts and reflect the society that makes them as well as the girls who play with them: an American Girl doll capturing an immigrant Jewish girlhood essentially whitewashed of tenements and the memory of pogroms; nineteenth-century paper dolls embodying both moral tales and fashion plates; Barbie and her Dream House reflecting the dimensions of modern architecture. All three of these examples are mediated by commercial culture and present tensions between cultural constructs and individual play.

Another doll, made by Mandrona at age 12

Set against these icons of American girlhood are the charming, wondrous handmade dolls of April Renée Mandrona. Even before I knew anything of their origin, these images particularly spoke to me of creativity, individuality, and deep play. Raised in rural Canada, Mandrona had plenty of porcelain fashion dolls and Barbies sent to her by distant relatives and she played with them, but they clearly did not reach deeply enough into her imagination. So she made these fascinating creatures that live and breathe their own personalities. I could hardly believe the one made by her as an eight-year-old! Not to mention the fairy queen when she was twelve or the toothpick dolls when she was ten. In addition to being a source of entertainment, they helped build relationships and an empowered sense of resourcefulness that informs her adult understanding of agency.

Teddy bear and knit sweater made by Mandrona at age 12

Working with all the images in this dolls issue, I got to play with them in my own way in preparing them for print. I have to say, I never played much with dolls growing up! But even still these images have deep resonance and power.

Fairy queen made by Mandrona at age 13.