In the mid to early 2000s, a craze took over a generation of girlhood: American Girl Dolls. Expensive 16 inch dolls connected to an era of American history, each with her own book series. Each doll had an extensive cache of clothing and accessories ranging from a new dress to a huge metal trundle bed that pinches your fingers. Today, there’s been a resurgence of popularity for the dolls with the now grown generation of girls who grew up with the dolls through meme instagram accounts such as @hellicity_merriman and @klit.kitteredge on instagram. What about the American Girl empire made such an impact on girls? How did it affect their relationship with history? Why do they still speak to girls throughout their lives?
My first American Girl doll was Felicity Merriman, a young girl in pre-revolutionary America described as “independent”, “loyal”, and “spirited”. It was a right of passage to go pick my doll for my birthday. My family took me to the American Girl Place in downtown Chicago where we looked at all the available dolls. Felicity looked just like me, and we had similar personalities (not to mention a really pretty purple dress). We took her to the American Girl Cafe and we got her book set for me to read. I tore through those books, reading and rereading them. I eventually grew a small obsession, spending all my chore, birthday, and Christmas money on new dolls, clothes, and accessories. My mom would go to auctions where returned dolls and clothes with minor flaws (like missing shoes or a hat) would get resold for cheap and store them in her closet to pull out for holidays. She made a matching girl scout uniform for my doll so we could match and she scoured thrift stores for furniture and accessories.
My dolls fueled my love for American history, turning me into a mini history buff with a special love for the Revolutionary war and the 1960s, as it did for many girls who loved the brand. Often, when learning about history, there is an impersonal distance to understanding it. There are lots of years and statistics and important old white men to remember. American Girl created a connection to the history, closing that distance by providing flawed, relatable young girls for readers to identify with. For example, Molly, a young girl living during World War II, is experiencing extreme wartime hardships. Her family takes in a refugee from England, she hides in a bomb shelter and has a victory garden. However, she is also the best tap dancer with a big performance coming up, she hates her straight hair and makes a number of bad decisions chasing curls, and she can be mean sometimes. While modern young American girls have likely never had to hide in a bomb shelter, they are also insecure about their appearance, with dreams of grandeur and occasionally can be mean. By making her fundamentally easy to relate to, girls can feel her fear around the war and the changes it brings into Molly’s life because they value the same things as her and can imagine that impact in their own lives.
American Girl is more than just a doll line. It became a lifestyle brand for young girls with books like their series A Smart Girl’s Guide tackling friendship troubles, dating, and more. One of the creators of @hellicity_merriman recalled practicing opening her locker in the air using the advice of the A Smart Girl’s Guide to Middle School book. There is also the infamous Care and Keeping of You book that many girls my age remember being awkwardly handed to them by an adult in their life. It was and remains to be one of the best sex education resources for young girls. There are pages that are a part of the modern zeitgeist, like the page about breast development and how to put in a tampon. The pages were uncensored, realistic drawings showing actual anatomy and was a life saver for my middle school self. There were also pages to teach girls how to shave, if they wanted to. The drawings represented a wide range of body types and races.
American Girl stories and lifestyle books are full of young girls who question adults and demand answers to the question “why”. These girls have complicated relationships where they fight with and love their family and friends. They deal with enormous life changes in unstable times. It was a guide for girls and let us know that despite being young and female, we could demand and enact change.
Despite these incredible offerings, American Girl is also, at the end of the day, a company. There is a strange dissonance between the stories and the culture of the dolls. For example, Kit Kittredge is living during the Great Depression, wearing feedsack dresses in a family scraping by in her books. However, she had upwards of 20 outfits, many with their own matching pair of shoes and accessories, retailing for around $25 each. Despite the experience she is meant to represent, the collection built around her is one reliant on wealth. Many girls recalled checking out the doll’s books from the library, looking at them in the catalog, and wishing they had one of their own, but the $100 price point was prohibitive for most families. Reconciling the business practices of the brand with the values demonstrated in their written series is difficult.
Nowadays, the girls who grew up during the American doll boom have retired from playing with the dolls and transitioned to meme accounts online. These accounts have captured attention for their leftist politics and adult humor in conjunction with images of the dolls, garnering backlash for their critiques of the brand. These accounts have become so prolific that the co-founders of the @hellicity_merriman account were invited to sit on the panel hosted by the Smithsonian, and other accounts have been featured in articles published by major media outlets. Memes created by these accounts range from outrageous and silly to radically political. When confronted about their content by more conservative adults who consider American Girl a safe haven of maintaining girlhood innocence through dolls, these accounts are unafraid to connect their current value systems and strong opinions to being raised on the brand and having role models of loud and unapologetic girls creating change despite lack of support by those around them. Through these accounts, the characters have become connected to more adult understandings of the issues they advocated for in their books, with Nellie being photoshopped in front of newspaper headlines announcing backwards slides on labor rights, edits of book covers to change the title of a Julie book to Julie and the Class War with Abolish Private Property on the banner in the cover illustration, and absurdist text in front of images of dolls, such as “gender is a performance and im getting booed off the stage” over an image of a Bitty Baby in a pink tutu and bow.
American Girl remains an ever popular brand, although through a few large scale changes made by Mattel after purchasing the doll brand, the goals and identity of the brand have left behind the dolls and culture my generation was so enamored by. The Pleasant Company’s original line of historical dolls raised a generation of outspoken, brave, empathetic change makers who aren’t afraid to ask why and demand answers from the world.
Girl Museum Inc.