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How American Girl dolls became a part of American culture — problems and all

The American Girl dolls have evolved over the years.
Ilya S. Savenok
Getty Images for American Girl
The American Girl dolls have evolved over the years.

Growing up, it felt like you were either the kid with all the American Girl dolls, or you knew the kid with all the American Girl dolls.

And they always seemed to be set up in one single (some might say creepy?) room that somehow belonged to the dolls. And since the 1980s, they have been an American cultural force — problematic parts included.

What are they?

  • Originally, each American Girl doll character was from a different point in American history and had their own corresponding book that was told from the perspective of that girl.
  • The product line has expanded now to include dolls from different cultures and ethnicities, and you can even order a custom American Girl that looks just like you.

So what? The dolls were conceived as an accessible way to teach children, especially girls, about different parts of American history.

  • Pleasant Rowland created American Girl in the 1980s when she went toy shopping for her niece and was appalled by the options for girls. 
  • American Girl put young girls at the center of American history, to both empower and educate them through play.
  • Yet the dolls have also drawn critiques for how accurately they represent people and periods. Most recently, there have been questions about the depiction of Seattle in 1999, and a Saturday Night Live sketch for a "historically accurate" American Girl movie.
  • More than 36 millions American Girl dolls have been sold, according to the company.

Want more on pop culture? Listen to the Consider This episode on The Nightmare Before Christmas turning 30.

What are people saying? All Things Considered host Juana Summers spoke with Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney, co-hosts of the Dolls of Our Lives podcast and co-authors of the new book, Dolls of Our Lives: Why We Can't Quit American Girl. Here's what they had to say.

On some of the complicated parts of American Girl and accessibility:

Mahoney: There's so many different areas where you see that showing up in the brand. One is sort of the original tone-deafness of some of the stories they tell. So the first books we read on the show were the Felicity books, in which her family claims ownership over enslaved people. And yet it's built into the story that you're not supposed to view her as racist because she has a Black friend. And, you know, that's tough to read now. It's sort of unfathomable how that happened in it in the early '90s when it was published.

But you can also see issues of accessibility. So along issues of race, like, if you were a person of color, what are you supposed to do with the fact that the first doll that looks like you is an enslaved person that you're invited to buy? And we've heard from a lot of listeners who, you know, as Black girls, Black women, have had to negotiate and renegotiate the relationship to a character that was really meaningful to them and continues to be. And as we talked about before, there's the economic barrier of the fact that this stuff has never been cheap, and that's a through line.

On the evolution of their respective relationships with American Girl:

Horrocks: American Girl was definitely a thing I shared with my family and one or two friends as a child. And now I have, you know, Discord and Facebook groups and different communities where I can say, you know, I bought an 18-inch horse today and there's people who will celebrate that with me ... and that's very exciting to me in a way that it was even when I was eight. So that's kind of a thing for me that hasn't changed so much.

Mahoney: As an adult who now knows I'm a queer person and did not know that as a child reading these books, it's been fun and empowering to see queer-coded characters and to read queerness into the books, you know, in the hopes of finding more representation in this brand that continues to mean a lot to me.

The Molly American Girl doll.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The Molly American Girl doll.

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The interview with Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks was conducted by Juana Summers, produced by Tyler Bartlam and edited by Justine Kenin. contributed to this story

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]