The Atlantic recently described how Mattel, the manufacturer that bought the American Girl doll company in 1998, is doing what it does best: Barbie-fying the once nuanced and interesting American Girl characters by turning them into teenyboppers. Gone are the girls who cared so strongly about their families, communities, and country. The new girls are obsessed with clothes, hair, ponies, and painting.
When I was little, there were six American Girl dolls, and they represented historical American characters from the 18th to 20th centuries. Felicity lived in Williamsburg, Virginia right before the Revolutionary War. Josefina maintained a ranch with her family in the 1820s in what is now New Mexico. Kirsten immigrated to Minnesota with her family from Sweden in the 1850s. Addy was a runaway slave adjusting to freedom in Philadelphia during the Civil War. Samantha was an orphan raised by her wealthy grandmother at the turn of the 20th century. And Molly held down the home front with her mother while her father tended to wounded soldiers in World War II. The dolls were expensive but exquisitely made: each came with beautifully tailored clothes and dozens of detailed accessories. But the best thing of all was that they came with books.
Each American Girl had a series of six books that detailed aspects of her life: her family conflicts, her challenges at school, her attempts to find her place in society. They had experiences that were similar to those of any girl growing up, and their characters were well-rounded and accessible. I should add that even though only two out of the six dolls — Addy and Josefina — were "of color," diversity was not lacking from the American Girl collection. It was obvious that Felicity had a much different lifestyle in 1774 Virginia than Kirsten did in the Midwest 80 years later.
The American Girl brand made a point of promoting tolerance and understanding by exposing children to different American cultures across history. What made these girls American, despite their various cultural differences and backgrounds, was their commitment to education, civic participation, and social interdependence. The emphasis was not on what they looked like, but on their inner beauty and desire to make the world around them a better place. I find it interesting that Mattel recently chose to archive Molly, the only American Girl who wears glasses. Could it be that Molly’s looks no longer match up to American Girl's beauty standards?
As Mattel’s values slowly infiltrate the company, the original message of the American Girl brand is increasingly diluted. The American Girls of today are pretty, with cute haircuts and trendy clothes. They have bake sales to help their school. They ride horses and paint pictures. They are normal and boring, and not at all like the American Girls who once transcended the pages of their books. Last year, I visited American Girl Place, the dolls' store in New York. When I was young, I used to long for the day when the company would open their store in New York. Even though I’m far too old for the dolls now, I wanted to see if the store captured the essence of the dolls I knew and loved. What I witnessed, instead, was scores of spoiled brats dragging their poor fathers from one brightly colored room to the next. Rows of dolls, garishly dressed, stared from their boxes with deadpan eyes.
Unfortunately, this is yet another example of corporate America ruining a brand in an attempt to raise their quarterly numbers. I’m sure that innovative marketing and strategy could have preserved the heart and soul of the dolls. After all, I wasn’t the only girl out there who loved to read and had a penchant for adventure. The American Girls of my childhood are as relevant today as they ever were. Mattel shouldn’t be archiving them in favor of new, prettier, shallower American Girls.