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The American Girl Doll Brand: Origin and Controversy

Updated on March 25, 2021

When my daughter was six, we came across the American Girl series of chapter books at the library. The books featured girls who lived in various historical time periods. For example, the Felicity books involve a girl who lived during the American Revolution, Molly lived during World War II, and the Kaya books feature a Nez Perce girl's adventures in 1764. The stories, both the books and movies, are a great way to introduce young girls to history in a fun, exciting, and girl-power way. The series even has great mystery books.

When my daughters shelled out some gift money to buy mini American Girl dolls at Barnes and Noble a couple of years later, I didn't think much of it. I also became aware of their non-history books and magazine over time. But I didn't have any concerns about the brand until my kids asked me for full-size American Girl dolls that cost a whopping $110. When we decided to visit The Grove in Los Angeles, they already knew there was an American Girl store there. In fact, there are more than a dozen of these stores in the US and Canada.

The American Girl Store

I wasn't prepared for three stories of expensive dolls, pets, clothing, and accessories. I saw some girls walking around with dolls in matching outfits. The dolls clothes are pricey enough, but a full outfit for a child comes to around $100. Some accessories like horses for the more active dolls cost about $90. There's even a section where dolls can have their hair styled. This brand, which I initially thought was dedicated to education like The Magic Tree House books, turned out to be a massive commercial venture. On their website the American Girl company says:

"We hope our stories, characters, and more speak to girls everywhere, helping them become all that they can be."

In the process, the American Girl company makes hundreds of millions.

American Girl Doll Store Sells Innocence and Mothers Are Buying

The Origin of American Girl

American Girl began in 1986 as a series of 18-inch dolls developed by the Pleasant Company. The company was started by schoolteacher Pleasant Rowland and owned by her until she sold it to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million. Rowland developed her line because she felt there was a gap in the doll market. The only dolls available were babies or teen dolls like Barbie. Rowland wanted to create dolls in the 8 to 12 age range. She also wanted to expose girls to history with historical themed dolls. She said:

"At an age when girls are old enough to read and still love to play, they need books and dolls that capture their imaginations. The stories in the American Girls Collection come alive with beautiful dolls and period doll clothes. The doll accessories are replicas of real things found in times gone by. They are quality pieces — not plastic playthings — and are made for children over eight years old to treasure."

After Mattel bought the brand, they phased out some of the dolls the books were based on to make room for modern girls who look "just like you!" Victorian Samantha, pioneer Kirsten, and colonial Felicity have been retired.

The Cost of a Doll

A 2010 article on Daily Finance titled "How much does an American Girl doll really cost?" pointed out:

"...the dolls represent a sense of girl power and stick-to-it-ness. Of course, all of that positive self-reinforcement comes at a price...Standing 18-inches tall, the American Girl doll towers over her competition with more than 18 million dolls sold since the company was founded in 1986 and raking in $436 million in sales during 2009 alone."

The article ended with this:

"With a total price tag well over $600, an American Girl doll is a big investment, but then again, can you really put a price on childhood?"

Considering how much fun my kids have making dollhouses out of cardboard boxes, it probably isn't necessary to put such a high price on childhood. But many parents do come under pressure to buy them.

Would you spend $110 on a doll for a child?

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Mommy blogger Stephanie Sprenger's diatribe against the dolls is titled "Thanks For Nothing, “American Girls” (Why I Hate American Girl Dolls)."

"I remember being perplexed last year to see a Facebook update that read, “WARNING: THE AMERICAN GIRL CATALOG IS IN TODAY’S MAIL!” Now I get it. I would have given anything to have intercepted that damn catalog before my over-zealous, eager-to-fit-in 2nd grader got her greedy little hands on it...But seriously, folks. $120 for a f*cking doll?"

The Watering Down of a Radical Brand

Amy Schiller's Atlantic article "American Girls Aren't Radical Anymore" starts off with this:

"Since the company was bought by Mattel 15 years ago, the dolls and their stories have shied away from the controversial subjects that once made them distinctive."

She goes on to compare the contemporary dolls with the original historical characters. The new dolls often come from upper-class backgrounds, probably to represent the only consumers who can afford them.

"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."

Compare this to the early characters who were aware of and actively engaged in the issues of their time.

"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 up giving a speech against child labor in factories at the award ceremony...The book is a bravura effort at teaching young girls about class privilege, speaking truth to power, and engaging with controversial social policy."

The historical books are fantastic and really do teach amazing lessons to young girls. It's unfortunate that Mattel has taken the brand in such an overly commercial direction. The focus on modern girls who are gymnasts and gardeners is unfortunate as well. One great thing about books is they can take kids far away from their own realities and introduce them to kids whose lives are nothing like theirs. The modern incarnation of American Girl dolls, with an endless supply of costly accessories, is encouraging ever more consumerism. They're all about having more and more stuff and putting the focus on self over others. This goes completely against what the earlier characters promoted.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 LT Wright


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