The American Girl doll was invented in the nineteen-eighties by an enterprising former grade-school teacher and news anchor in her mid-forties named Pleasant Rowland, during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Rowland was also a successful author of textbooks and other educational materials, and wanted to capitalize on what seemed to her to be the obvious draw of historically accurate, immersive play. Missing from the Barbie-and-baby-doll eighties play landscape, she also noticed, was a doll for little girls who was herself a child. Playing with dolls their own age might slow girls’ premature rush into what Rowland saw as a “too sour and cynical” adult world. She designed the original three American Girl dolls—the well-to-do orphan Samantha Parkington, from the Progressive Era; the Swedish immigrant Kirsten Larson, on the 1854 Minnesota frontier; and the bespectacled Midwesterner Molly McIntire, on the home front of the Second World War—to have heavy, plush bodies and appealing faces. Each came with a set of six books about their lives, in which we meet them as nine-year-olds and follow them in the course of about one year during a significant point in American history.
From the beginning, Rowland’s invention wasn’t just a doll but a brand. “The draw for American Girl was not just the stories, but the whole package,” the historians and podcast hosts Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks observe in “Dolls of Our Lives: Why We Can’t Quit American Girl,” their recent book that traces millennials’ and Gen Z-ers’ enduring emotional attachment to American Girl. Rowland sold the toys directly to parents and kids through catalogues that pictured the dolls in enticing tableaus where “everything in the image was for sale: furniture, accessories, and extra outfits.” In its first four months, Rowland’s Pleasant Company, which sold to Mattel in 1998 for seven hundred million dollars, sold $1.7 million worth of product. By the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands, it was the dominant life-style brand for girls, and had accumulated a dizzying array of touchpoints and spinoffs: infant Bitty Baby dolls, cookbooks, theatre kits, paper dolls, D.I.Y. craft kits, a clothing line, an annual Girl of the Year and another model set in modern times that was customizable in tens of skin and hair tone combinations, an influential puberty book for girls (“The Care and Keeping of You”), pen-pal opportunities, a bimonthly magazine, immersive American Girl Place flagships in three cities, and the American Girl catalogue, which one woman tells the authors of “Dolls of Our Lives” that she demanded to be read from like it was a bedtime story.
American Girl’s first target audience, now adult millennials, still form a key part of the brand’s fan base. Gatherings of people in their thirties are common at American Girl Cafés. There is more than one American Girl recap podcast like Horrocks and Mahoney’s, a host of American Girl history meme accounts, and costumer YouTube creators who replicate period American Girl outfits in adult sizes. Unlike, say, Furby, American Girl appears to have inhered in some essential way within the millennial conception of self. For Horrocks and Mahoney, self-described typical nineties kids who grew up to become millennial archetypes—childless Ph.D.s unenthused by the “adjunctification” of the academic job market—the appeal of the dolls has proved both an outlet and a mystery. “The relationship between these imaginary girls and our girlhoods felt so vital and obvious to people who’d lived it, but was harder to explain to people who hadn’t,” they write. The stated purpose of their memoir-slash-cultural-history of the dolls is to “get at what is going on in the books and with the brand.”
Part of what is “going on” is class anxiety. American Girl merchandise seems luxurious to little girls—books with ribbon bookmarks, dolls with thick hair—and the dolls cost enough to be inaccessible to many American girls (over $60 in 1986). But the brand has always been marketed to middle-class consumers. American Girl was originally “a ‘masstige’ brand in a time of mass affluence,” as researchers put it in a 2009 article in the Journal of Marketing, and thus especially appealing to the middle- and upper-middle-class parents of the eighties and nineties, who responded to national narratives of progress and prosperity by piling on extracurriculars and gearing play toward replication of the family’s class position. This was childhood, essentially, as preparation for the college essay. American Girl offered twofold preparation in this regard, teaching historical facts through smart, plucky girls, who, with their documentable, diverse interests and well-rounded personalities, seemed like obvious college-bound types themselves.
American Girl both positioned girls for entrance into white-collar professionalism and taught them to be good citizens. Contradictory but potent lessons in civic engagement were key to the brand. Vivid, selective histories encouraged children to identify equally with the colonizer Kirsten Larson (“A pioneer girl of strength and spirit who settles on the frontier”) and Addy Walker, a girl who does hard labor while enslaved on a tobacco plantation and who is marketed with the tagline “She’s determined to be free.” At American Girl, history was a narrative of progress, and ordinary girls were its protagonists. As Horrocks and Mahoney put it, the brand taught “girls (who could afford it) that the past was theirs to claim” by adopting a “ ‘girl stands in for nation’ vibe”—where “nation” is here “defined by whiteness, privilege, and a very specific vision of womanhood.”
The limits and power of this approach are visible in the legacy of Addy, Pleasant Company’s first (and, for nearly two decades, only) Black historical doll, whose story follows her eventual escape from slavery in North Carolina with her mother during the Civil War. Horrocks and Maroney discuss the panel of Black scholars who were convened to advise on Addy’s character, plot, and history, and interview women who played with the doll as girls. Pleasant Company’s approach to telling this story seems remarkable for an American corporation in the nineties. The company smudged history in other places, especially when it might make its white characters look bad—the family of Felicity Merriman, an American Girl living in Colonial Williamsburg, has two “servants” who are known to be enslaved—but for Addy’s story, Pleasant Company explicitly avoided the presence of white saviors, and depicted slavery as dehumanizing and hopeless. When Addy’s mother escapes with her elder daughter, she leaves an infant behind. “I wanted children to see African American people as part of strong, loving families, caught up in slavery, doing what they had to do to survive,” Connie Porter, the author of the line of Addy books, has said. For the Black girls who played with Addy, and the parents who considered buying the toy, this unflinching approach made for freighted play. Brit Bennett, in her 2015 Paris Review essay on Addy, asks, “If a doll exists on the border between person and thing, what does it mean to own a doll that represents an enslaved child who once existed on that same border?”
Such complexity, even uneasiness, was how the brand thrived. In the 2009 article on the brand, written by marketing scholars who studied visitors of Chicago’s American Girl Place for more than three years, the authors wrote the American Girl stories, each embodied by a doll, should be thought of less as “tidily nested identical entities” over which the brand held ultimate narrative control, and more as a “a disorderly aggregation . . . filled with ambiguities that consumers are driven to resolve and lacunae they are compelled to fill.” Instead of limiting their imaginations, researchers found, the profusion of historical detail seemed to give girls permission to remix existing histories and respond with narratives of their own. The authors of the paper call American Girl an “open source” brand. (Other contemporary examples they cite are Linux and Wikipedia.) They thought—presciently, it turned out—that these brands, which allowed consumers to become storytellers and content creators in their own right, were the way of the future.
Almost all dolls prepare girls to perform womanhood. Baby dolls ready them for mothering; Barbies for being sexual objects. Rowland’s twin innovations—a multifaceted, highly detailed consumer universe paired with a doll that was herself a girl—invited girls to perform themselves. American Girl introduced millennials to the pleasure of defining themselves by riffing on type, and of telling their life stories through brand-established channels—writing in to American Girl magazine with their questions, becoming pen pals with other A.G.-loving girls, and supplying their own family trees for American Girl paper dolls, in which each woman in a familial line could be represented by a paper cutout, complete with clothes based on those worn in their family photographs.
Its books may have taught girls about history, but as a brand American Girl taught them to present themselves the way they later would online. Participating in an American Girl pen pal felt old-timey in the eighties and nineties, Horrocks and Mahoney write, but in fact segued neatly into a millennial-pioneered form of peer connection—the long-distance, online-only friend. (The authors cite—what else?—a tweet, whose author observes: “a new type of relationship first experienced by my generation is ‘girl I’ve been friends with online for 20 years.’ ”) In recent years, the brand’s drumbeat of annual dolls, each immortalizing a different American place and time, has occasioned waves of American Girl history memes that ironically call for brand enshrinement of absurd or personal moments in history.