American Girl dolls: from adventure heroes to helicopter-parented, sheltered junior spa-bunnies

Writing in The Atlantic, Amy Schiller documents how Mattel has spent the past 15 years transforming the expensive, highly detailed American Girl dolls from a source of radical inspiration that signposted moments in the history of the struggles for justice and equality in the US, into posh upper-middle-class girls who raise money for bake sales. As Lenore Skenazy points out, the original American Girls were children who had wild adventures without adult oversight; the new crop are helicopter-parented and sheltered, and their idea of high adventure is a closely supervised day in the snow.

Saige is white and upper-middle-class, just like McKenna the gymnast and Lanie the amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast, both previous Girls of the Year. Even in their attempt to encourage spunky and active girlhoods, their approaches to problem solving are highly local—one has a bake sale to help save the arts program in a local school, another scores a victory for the organic food movement when she persuades a neighbor to stop using pesticides.

By contrast, the original dolls confronted some of the most heated issues of their respective times. In the book A Lesson for Samantha, she wins an essay contest at her elite academy with a pro-manufacturing message, but after conversations with Nellie, her best friend from a destitute background who has younger siblings working in brutal factory jobs, Samantha reverses course and ends us giving a speech against child labor in factories at the award ceremony. Given the class divide, Samantha's speech presumably takes place in front of the very industrial barons responsible for those factory conditions. The book is a bravura effort at teaching young girls about class privilege, speaking truth to power, and engaging with controversial social policy, all based on empathetic encounters with people whose life experiences differ from her own.

American Girls Aren't Radical Anymore (via Free Range Kids)


  1. “In the book A Lesson for Samantha, she wins an essay contest at her elite academy with a pro-manufacturing message, but after conversations with Nellie, her best friend from a destitute background who has younger siblings working in brutal factory jobs, Samantha reverses course and ends us giving a speech against child labor in factories at the award ceremony.”

    Speaking of which, that move sounds like it would make a killer admissions essay for Samantha’s application to an Ivy League college, probably worth at least 3 or 4 extracurriculars…

    That’s, um, not helping, right?

      1. I was(attempting at any rate) to satirize the intense cynicism that the college applications process produced in some of the people I went to school with(and I think that it’s a broader trope).

        No hobby was so rewarding, movement against the grain so transgressive, or charitable endeavor so altruistic, that it wasn’t boiled down to its probable effects on your admissions numbers at your reach schools. Maybe it’s a North-Eastern thing; but it’s pretty dramatic when it happens.

        In Samantha’s hypothetical case, turning the event into admissions-essay fodder simultaneously sanitizes it(risk-averse helicopter parents are honor-bound to approve of any act of rebellion/transgression that improves your shot at Yale) and opens the calming possibility that her youthful enthusiasm for poor people is just a phase, probably one that getting an MBA and a job managing the same will cure.

  2. What type of problems might American Girls deal with these days?  A girl whose mother or father has been crippled during one of our many recent wars?  A girl who is homeless?  Disabled?  Displaced by flooding, earthquake, or hurricane?   Discriminated against because she wears a chador?  They do seem to be going for the easy answers recently.

    1. Yeah . . . so . . . $110 for any of these dolls, $55 for the Bitty Babies (which I don’t think have the elaborate back story). At Melissa & Doug dolls are $19.99 and I am pretty sure I can buy a newspaper for $1 most places. So, I feel like if it is really that important to convey messages, it can be done for an awful lot less.

      Honestly, the whole deal has always felt like a conscious salve for rich parents. The books might be great, but $110 for the book and doll strikes me as converting this into a pure status purchase.

  3. Can’t dolls just be dolls?   Do girls really need adults providing a back story for their dolls at all?   How about we just let the little girls themselves use their own imaginations and come up with histories and personalities for their own toys? 

    Why do we have to inject grown-up world, like fighting oppression and injustice, into the little one’s playtime at all?  How about we just let little girls play pretend?  They can make them freedom fighters or just play house or do whatever their creative little minds come up with to have fun. 

    1.  That’s my pet peeve with so many of the toys today.  Adults have made them way too structured and planned and added way too much of their own agenda and the real world into children’s playthings.  Why do legos come all in sets now to build what some grown-up thinks you should want to build?  Why do all the Barbies come prepackaged with different careers and personalities?  What happened to the big bucket of blocks and the barbie in the bathing suit and the kid guiding things from there? 

      1. Lego item 4288 “Classic Bucket” is no longer on the market; but item 10662 (gruesomely named “Creative Bucket”) is in the same general spirit.

        Where Lego Inc. refuses to provide, your best bet might be, where individual parts(as well as analysis of lego SKUs, advice on most cost-effectively obtaining the parts you are looking for, etc.) are readily available in the aftermarket. You should be able to score pretty much whatever you need.

      2. ” Why do legos come all in sets now to build what some grown-up thinks you should want to build? ”

        Because the patent on Legos expired, so to set themselves apart from the assorted rip-offs (Mega Blox, etc.) they needed to turn to licensing properties, video games, etc. to maintain their brand identity, etc. It’s a bit of a shame, but that’s the reasoning behind it. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if they had you creating the pop-culture elements out of bricks, rather than mostly just supplying pre-fab pieces that can’t be repurposed as readily.

        You can still get “creative buckets” full of regular ol’ Lego bricks, though.

        I haven’t bought a Lego set in ages – do the boxes still have alternate models depicted on the back side to encourage creativity?

    2. I get what you’re saying about adults projecting, but I think the main point here should be reiterated–the idea behind the dolls has been watered down to the point of becoming like everything else. So in that sense, these are definately just ….dolls being dolls now.

    3. You do realize that the backstory for these dolls came from substantial series of books, right?  It’s not just a quick blurb on the back of the box or something.

      As someone who was the prime age for American Girl dolls and cherished my Kirsten and Josefina, I absolutely adored the backstory and the books that explained it- and I had no trouble diverging from that backstory when my play dictated it.  Not really as big a deal as you might think.

      1.  No, I didn’t realize the dolls had book series of “real” books they were associated with it.  That makes more sense.  I was envisioning a  little brochure in the box kind of thing.  ( I guess they didn’t have those when I was the right age for them.  I don’t remember seeing the books, or the dolls back then.) 

        1. You probably just weren’t rich enough. Because they’ve ALWAYS been expensive. On the other hand, rich girls should get to play with poor (doll) girls too!

        2.  Maybe read the article?  It points out that the “[new] Girls of the Year have two biographical books, compared to the six provided for each historical character”.

          I never had the dolls (have never been a fan of dolls in general), but I was aware of the books.

    4. As it turns out, I like the Middle Earth in my head better than the one on the screen.  Unfortunately (for the purveyors of fine entertainment media), my fantasies aren’t monetized.  Yet.

    5. I was a Kirsten devotee. She was a Swedish immigrant who loved the outdoors.  I played with her fishing set almost exclusively.  I learned a lot about Swedish culture and immigration because of Kirsten and her books.

      Growing up in the woods of Ohio, it was REALLY special to have a doll that represented my interests and was a strong role model (because of both the books and the fact that her accessories were snowshoes, a fishing pole, a school slate, etc).  She also, it’s important to note, was shaped like a GIRL.

      The rich background of the dolls weren’t an agenda, they were a necessity, especially when our only other options were Barbie and her Unreasonable Proportions.

  4. i remember when those things started to become a things for friends of mine, my impression then and now is that they are very expensive dolls that aren’t meant to be played with for girls who are too old to really care about dolls but are too young to beg their mommies and daddies for cars but still want a status symbol to make themselves feel superior to other people

    1. Ehhhhh. Yes, and no.

      I had an upper-middle cousin who acquired several of those dolls, and in some ways, they were very much a status symbol for the tiny prima donna-to-be. But they were also more than that, and that was courtesy their accompanying books.

      I managed to read and/or collect every single book for every single girl (at the time), and each story was surprisingly good. There was the girl who dealt with class issues and family troubles during WWII; the one who stood up for her loved ones and broke some major gender roles during the American Revolution; the girl who managed to escape life as a slave, acquire an education, and learned to ask questions of the world. I’m not a big advocate for the dolls, for reasons we more or less seem to agree on, but if the parent company kept pumping comparable stories out for girls growing up here and now? I’d gladly buy a few of the damn dolls, just to give them and their stories away.

      1. im probably just bitter because during that point in my life my rich friends were getting expensive dolls that they didn’t play with and i was mowing lawns and taking odd jobs so i could keep clothes on my back

  5. True story:  I pulled together the money to buy myself a (then $90) Felicity doll by playing bingo at the North Topeka Elks Club when I was 8*.  I won $50 and my parents each pitched in $20 as a birthday gift. It was a big freaking deal event in my life. Later, we bought the dress pattern kits they used to sell and my Grammy sewed me Felicity’s entire wardrobe for a fraction of the catalog cost. 

    In retrospect, the books (which I checked out from the library) were more important to my actual play and imagination development than the doll. The books were fantastic history porn (at the end of each story you got a non-fiction section about the real historical context) and full of adventures that shaped my games of imagination between 3rd and 6th grades. They were also big jumping off points for further book reading: I ended up knowing way too much about cholera for a child born in 1981, for example. 

    The doll was important to me for a few years, mainly, though, because she represented this great achievement … I’d managed to get this thing I thought I’d never ever be able to have. I do remember playing with her, for sure. But I have much stronger memories of playing with the catalogs, which were like J. Peterman for the grade school girl set. 

    *Felicity probably caused me untold amounts of second-hand-smoke lung damage. 

    1. There’s something funny about your parents rewarding you for making money gambling instead of the more usual mowing lawns or delivering papers.

      1. Like Maggie said, in the Midwest, Bingo is considered perfectly wholesome even by those who disapprove of casinos and such.  Schools and churches even use it as a fundraiser. Yes, it doesn’t really make that much sense if you think about it. Also, playing Euchre or Sheepshead for money is considered pretty innocent while poker is considered sketchy.

    2. Those dresses are probably held under copyright now in some fashion and are DRM’d to prevent you legally just making your own. Also, history porn!

  6. I had American girl dolls when I was a kid.  I didn’t come from a wealthy or even middle class family (many family members put in together for Christmas and birthday gifts to give them to me), but I loved the dolls, and most importantly I loved, loved, loved their stories.  I read and reread them endlessly.  Samantha was my hero, I wanted to be her.  Felicity’s story was equally enthralling.  I also read Addy and Kirsten and Molly because my friends and family members had those dolls and books.  These girls were strong and brave and had adventures.  A bake sale does not sound like an adventure.Samantha did not just write and give that essay so she could later put it on her college application.  in every book she did everything possible to help her less fortunate friends, even down to hiding them in the attic of her uncle’s house and stealing food from the pantry to feed them when they had no where else to go.The dolls themselves were more fun and easier to dress than Barbies and like another commenter said there was no reason that in play they had to stick to their story line.  Yes, they were and still are expensive, and they were for older girls who didn’t want baby dolls, but by no means were they meant to be stuck on a shelf and merely looked at… 
    I’m disappointed that they have become so watered down and pleased that I still have both my dolls, their books and all the fixin’s to pass down to my daughter instead of some silly story about a butterfly watcher…

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