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American Girl Dolls

By Nik Shultz

It’s been a moment since I wrote about a specific type of doll, so I’d like to talk about American Girl dolls. I think most Americans are somewhat familiar with the dolls, especially if they are a young girl, were a young girl in the last 30 or 40 years, or have a young girl in their life now. There are plenty of similar dolls now. I myself received a knockoff brand 18” doll one birthday.

But at the time that American Girl dolls were first released in 1986, they were the only dolls of their kind. The creator and founder of the company, Pleasant Rowland, noted that young girls didn’t have many dolls that were modelled after them, only baby dolls, or fashion dolls like Barbie. Additionally, her interest in history led her to the idea of creating characters from different time periods. The dolls were made for girls ages 8 to 12 and came with books telling stories of the experiences of young girls throughout history, and including lessons for modern girls.

Later on the company expanded beyond the historical line to include stories set in the modern era, such as the Girl of the Year line. They also made a line of the dolls currently called Truly Me which allows young girls the opportunity to have a doll that looks like them. In 2017, the company started a service for ordering custom dolls was added. The American Girl brand has also included, Bitty Baby baby dolls, Bitty Twins toddler aged dolls, and a two lines of dolls in an age group between the toddler dolls and the regular American Girl dolls.

Over the years, the company has done a lot to warrant praise. Their books have tackled hard subjects such as poverty, slavery, and war, in a way that still takes into account their young audience. They’ve put out nonfiction books like “The Care and Keeping of You” to help young afab people navigate their growing bodies, and the world around them, and during my childhood they had a magazine featuring stories and art from its readers along with crafts, comics, and advice.  The research that goes into their products is meticulous, the often cited example being their historical doll Kaya, whose tribe, the Nez Perce, was consulted through her creation and story writing. As a result she is the only historical that doesn’t show her teeth, following the customs of the tribe, and her clothing features tradition patterns. The company also creates doll sized hearing aids, wheelchairs, crunches, epi-pens, inhalers, and diabetes care kits. 

Still the company has been criticized for limited diversity, and moving away from its historical roots. There have been complaints that the more contemporary characters shy away from confronting the big issues that the books dealt with in the past. The dolls are quite expensive, and the brand has a tricky tight rope to walk between making stories that are relatable to the current generation of their target demographic, but also appeal to parents for either nostalgic or educational value reasons.

Photo Courtesy of Shana Youngdahl

Despite these difficulties the dolls remain popular among kids and teenage or adult collectors, and you can see why. They’ve done a lot of good for several generations. Still they’ve been losing money and closing stores for some time now. Why?

American Girl has been owned by Mattel, the same company that owns Barbie, since 1998, and many point to this as the shifting point that led to more focus on the look-alike dolls. It’s tough to be certain if its parent company is what’s damaging the brand, or if it’s just too difficult for something like this to survive the free market over time. It does beg the questions though. Is American Girl being bought up by the same company that owns dolls it was starkly contrasting itself to a matter of assimilation? Is the brand too limited in its focus on young, cis American girls? Does capitalism actually reward and uplift positive products for young girls?

If you’re interesting in hearing some more thoughts on the brand and company I’d recommend this article.

Featured Image: “American Girl Doll Inspired Birthday Party by Anders Ruff” by Anders Ruff Custom Designs is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0



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