By the time I was old enough to read, the American Girl Company had found its way into schools and homes and became a defining aspect of middle-class girlhood—you’d be hard pressed to find a young woman of our generation or younger who didn’t own an American Girl doll, or who didn’t read the accompanying books by flashlight under the covers of a Laura Ashley–outfitted twin bed. The trademarked characters, nine year–old girls living in historically significant years ending in four—revolutionary Felicity from 1774, pioneering Kirsten from 1854, Victorian Samantha from 1904, and so on—were originally available only by mail order, in glossy catalogs that arrived several times a year.
It wasn’t until later, presumably long after we stopped paying attention, that the company went big. It was bought out by Mattel in 1998, the world’s largest toy importing company and the creators of Barbie, who grew it into a franchise of Barbie-like proportions. In addition to the 11 million dolls and 105 million books sold since 1986, there were new movies, flagship stores, and more merchandise than ever. The American Girl brand still kept an educational bent, but as it grew, it stepped on some fingers and ruffled feathers on all sides.
Meet American Girl
The American Girl Company was founded as the Pleasant Company in Middleton, Wisconsin, in 1986, the year they released the first catalogue. It included only three characters, Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly, all of whom were white and two of whom were affluent. To cut down on production costs, their doll faces were molded from the same pattern, a round babyish design that didn’t match how they looked in the delicate colored-pencil portraits on the covers of their namesake books.
Until 2000, Pleasant Rowland, a former teacher and the company’s founder, helmed the brand. After brief stints in education, broadcast journalism, and publishing, Rowland struck upon the idea of selling dolls with a backstories anchored in American history while visiting Colonial Williamsburg. White-haired and elegantly dressed, Rowland looks the part of a Midwestern doll tycoon and has played the role skillfully and profitably. Even after selling AG to Mattel for $770 million, she kept the company headquarters in Middleton, Wisconsin and ran it for two more years. In her retirement, she has remained in Wisconsin and become a grand dame of Madison society, throwing money about whenever an arts center needs funding or a historic building needs restoration.
Under Mattel’s control, the company flourished and diversified. The first movie, “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday,” came out in 2004 and was produced by Julia Roberts. Within ten years of the first American Girl Place store opening, there are now seven flagship stores around the country to sell dolls, accessories and services like hairstyling.
American Girl and Friends
Chicago’s American Girl Place is a particular kind of flagship store that makes little girls feel powerful and makes grown women feel small. It inundates you with tiny merchandise and overwhelms you with giant columns and display cases. The biggest of the five American Girl Place locations around the country, the two-story store includes a doll hair salon, a party room that offers three different party packages, and a bistro for which reservations can be made online (the website strongly encourages you to make reservations now, to “make memories this holiday season,” to avoid having a disappointed brat on your hands when you show up and the place is packed.)
It’s unclear whether the dolls have gotten smaller or whether my arms have gotten bigger, but there is something shrunken and dense about this new generation. The girls look skinnier now, with whittled down legs that help them fit into figure-skating and equestrian outfits, not to mention the tiny red bikinis the store sells on equally tiny clothes hangers. While they once had soft, convex muslin bodies, they now have skinny rubber limbs and flat torsos that don’t match their toddler-like facial features. They still have the same shiny hair, plaited or curled or bobbed to match the style of the time.
There were dolls I didn’t recognize, ones developed long after I left the suggested eight to twelve age group. There was Julie Albright, a flaxen-haired blonde I had never seen before, there to teach me about divorce, environmentalism, and Title IX. There was 2009’s Rebecca Rubin, the first Jewish American Girl doll, who had replaced Swedish Kirsten Olsen as the one who teaches us about cultural and religious assimilation. By the time I had finished circling the octagonal display case in the lobby, I realized these unfamiliar girls represented a much more diverse crowd of tiny plastic feminists than the ones I had grown up with. For all the commercialism that came with the Mattel buyout, the company gained a certain thoughtfulness, or at least a sense of political correctness. For one thing, the molds of their faces had changed to better depict the ethnic groups from which the dolls come, unlike the one-shape-fits-all of our childhood dolls. Their clothes were more detailed, and their accessories—from shawls to patent leather purses to tiny glasses—are more detailed. With their plastic hair and frozen faces, these girls could teach the next generation about petticoats and patriotism in a much more accurate way.
American Girl’s Journey
Not all diversity efforts were welcome. Late last year, the company announced that their “Girl of the Year,” a contemporary limited edition doll, was going to have a life circumstance that had never previously been explored in any of the other dolls’ backstories: Gwen Thompson (the best friend of 2009 “Girl of the Year,” Chrissa) homeless. Not homeless like the time I left my Molly doll on my back porch over night, but living-in-a-car, honest-to-god homeless, as depicted in the series of books that went along with the blonde doll. Homeless advocates like Beyond Shelter spoke out against the group when they learned that none of the profits from Gwen’s $95 price tag would help homeless people or advocacy groups.
By that point, American Girl had already suffered attacks from the right. In October 2005, the National Review attacked the company over their “I CAN” campaign, in which they pledged $50,000 to the girls’ empowerment group, Girls Inc, and sold rubber Livestrong-style bracelets to support the organization. It isn’t explicitly political—it self-identifies as “a national nonprofit youth organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold”—but Girl’s Inc. does support abortion rights. National Review’s John J. Miller lamented that his wife had bought several “I CAN” bracelets for their daughter’s friends, only to be horrified that they supported an organization that stands in contrast to her pro-life views. “We have nothing to do with abortion,” Girls Inc. president Joyce Roche told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Our program is about preventing the need for abortion.” American Girl also disputed Miller’s claims, and fought to maintain neutrality: “We are profoundly disappointed,” the company wrote in a press release, “that certain groups have chosen to misconstrue American Girl’s purely altruistic efforts and turn them into a broader political statement on issues that we, as a corporation, have no position.”
Even before the sale to Mattel, American Girl received flak for the way they dealt with identity politics; the company’s first three dolls were white, and the first non-white doll they introduced was a slave at the beginning of her narrative. In a later case, a Hispanic “Girl of the Year,” Marisol, was criticized because the company chose to have her live in a neighborhood that made her feel unsafe.
These disputes pop up despite the fact that the company uses a laborious R-and-D strategy to develop each doll and her back-story. It took the company almost nine years to develop Rebecca Rubin, the most recently released doll,
uring which researchers debated what type of Judaism she should practice, where she should live, what her aspirations should be, even the tiniest details of her appearance. The company thought that giving her dark brown hair—the most common hair-color for Russian-Jewish immigrants—would be too predictable. “In the end, after many discussions weighing out the advantages of both approaches,” the director of development told the New York Times, “we created what we felt was an optimum combination and gave her a new mid-tone brown hair color with russet highlights.” Changes for American Girl American Girl has its fair share of critics, but few can deny that the company has mastered the tightrope walk between meaning and materialism. “If a blond Christian girl in North Dakota enjoys pretending she is living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1914,” Allen Salkin of the Times remarked, “American Girl will be happy to sell her a toy menorah.” They must be selling quite a few toy menorahs—as well as movie tickets, spin-off dolls, self-help books, just-like-my-doll outfits and services at American Girl Place locations — because the company generated $463 million in revenue last year. Their status as pop-culture icons became apparent last year New York film critic David Edelstein named “Kit Kitterage: An American Girl” as one of his top 10 movies of 2008, and when Harper’s reported on the company’s homeless doll debacle. Their price tags keep climbing and their gear more elaborate. Created to teach us about hardship and heartbreak, our littlest apolitical proto-feminists are richer and more popular than ever. Marisa Calleja B’10 is just a Molly trying to be a Kit.