If you know a girl, any girl, chances are good that girl has wistfully flipped through an American Girl catalog, longing for one of the dolls and her period-appropriate doll bed and pajamas. Chances are even better that same girl was told there was no way she was getting one, so she made do with reading all of the books in the character’s series. Chances are higher that this tricked her into appreciating American history and the independent spirit of young women everywhere. Chances are great that she may stop even to this day whenever she sees an American Girl Guide rack and appreciate the amazing range of books dealing with everything from puberty to hacky sack.
What’s the big deal, you say? American Girls are just dolls, dolls that are 10 times the price of a Barbie at that. But these dolls are so much more than that–these dolls teach children that are just beginning to have an inkling that the world is bigger than their own home about social issues. About how everyone can make a difference. Yeah. Intense. Well, they were.
What do you mean? How could silky-haired dolls do all this? Don’t worry, bros. Let me take you by the hand and lead you into the wide world of American Girls.
A bro’s guide to American Girl dolls
American Girls started in 1986, originally available through mail-order only. There were three initial dolls and had a set of six initial books to accompany them. The girls “lived” during various periods in American history. The “historical” dolls expanded to include over 200 years and 17 different characters. A second line of contemporary dolls was added in 2001.
The dolls are all 18 inches tall, and originally had the same face mold–this was expanded when the dolls became more reflective of different cultures. Different hair textures were also added.
In 1998, the Pleasant Company, which manufactured the dolls, became a subsidiary of Mattel. That’s when shit got bananas. By which I mean “less focused on history.”
The historical dolls
Like kale hidden in a smoothie, the dolls were initially meant to be good for us, to teach girls about life throughout American history while also enforcing ideas of independence, compassion, bravery, and spirit. They also approach larger societal issues in a kid-friendly manner–or as kid-friendly as you can get about war and death. Each girl deals with a crisis, both personal and as a result of her country’s growth. They also have a birthday and a Christmas book.
The characters are all between nine and 11 years old, which automatically leads one to shock at the amount of independence afforded to all children prior to the ’90s. I mean, these girls are jumping onto ships and saving babies! Let’s go through them in their historical order, not necessarily the order they were produced.
Stats: Native American.
Takes place in: 1764
She is from: the Nez Perce tribe. She lives in pre-contact America.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful but also kind of . . . reckless.
She is great because . . . she wants to be the leader of her tribe.
Stats: Auburn hair, blue eyes
Takes place in: 1774
She is from: Williamsburg, Va.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful but also kind of . . . pissed that girls don’t get to do everything boys get to do.
She is great because . . . she wants to step outside of traditional home-based roles for women in society.
Fun fact: She was played in a 2005 made-for-TV movie by Shailene Woodley, who only this past Monday stated that she was not a feminist because she loves men. It’s a real bummer that Woodley learned nothing from Felicity, most notably the difference between the idea that men and women should be treated equally and the idea that if you let women have a little power, they’ll immediately usurp men, killing them all except for one 98 percentile perfect specimen that we keep in the basement for breeding purposes in our lawless, Amazonian warrior society. But Shailene makes her own toothpaste, so she’s probably got it together better than, you know, Felicity.
Felicity has the sidekick Elizabeth, who is Felicity’s BFF, despite coming from a Loyalist family and Felicity’s family being Patriots (Can you remember which side the Loyalists were on and which side the Patriots were on? Yeah, the historical girls are dope.) Elizabeth is totally bashful.
Elizabeth and Felicity were archived in 2011.
Stats: Blonde, blonde, blonde.
Takes place in: 1812
She is from: Sackets Harbor, N.Y. where she is the daughter of a shipbuilder on Lake Ontario.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful but also kind of . . . a pirate.
Stats: She is a Mexican who recently migrated to America.
Takes place in: 1824
She is from: New Mexico.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . dealing with the death of her mother.
She is great because . . . she wants to be a healer! Also she has a pet goat named Sombrita.
Stats: Kind of sandy haired? Not quite so blonde. Blue eyed.
Takes place in: 1853
She is from: New Orleans
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . in the middle of an outbreak of Yellow Fever.
She is great because . . . she rescues a baby! I don’t know, I bet she knows where to get the best gumbo and how to not get roofied and have your kidneys stolen.
Marie-Grace’s sidekick is Cecile, who is from a wealthy African-French family. Her gimmick is singing.
Stats: Blonde, blonde, blonde homesteader.
Takes place in: 1854
She is from: Sweden originally but her family immigrates to Minnesota.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . trying to learn English.
She is great because . . . she deals with ideas and repercussions of manifest destiny as her family of homesteaders pushes Native Americans out of the area. Kirsten has a close friend, Singing Bird, who has to leave because her family cannot farm their own land for food.
Kirsten was also one of the original three dolls. She was archived in 2010.
Stats: The first African-American doll.
Takes place in: 1864
She is from: originally North Carolina, but she and her family escape slavery to Philadelphia.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . ATTEMPTING TO ESCAPE A LIFE OF SLAVERY.
She is great because . . . she traveled the Underground Railroad to start a new life in the North and still has to deal with racism there.
Stats: A dark-haired, wealthy Edwardian orphan.
Takes place in: 1904
She is from: upstate New York
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . orphaned.
She is great because . . . she decides her BFF is a servant, Nellie, who she manages to convince her aunt and uncle to adopt. at the same time they adopt her. She also, you know, rallies against child labor thanks to her friendship with Nellie. You see, Nellie is an Irish immigrant who is dealing with child labor. Legit. She’s forced to work in a factory.
Fun fact: Samantha also had a movie “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday” which was made for the WB. She was played by Anna Sophia Robb, who you will immediately recognize from “Because of Winn-Dixie” or “The Carrie Diaries” and now I know all your shameful TV secrets.
She was the last of the three original dolls. She was archived in 2009, but she’s coming back in the fall.
Stats: First generation American of Russian-Jewish parents
Takes place in: 1914
She is from: New York, N.Y.
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . obsessed with movies and wants to be an actress. Girl, it is so hard now, I can’t imagine how rough it was in 1914. Hope you’ve got some tap shoes and naturally good teeth.
Stats: Blonde, blonde, blonde tomboy.
Takes place in: 1934
She is from: Cincinnati
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . not that helpful until she realizes her family is poor after her father’s job loss during the Great Depression. Then she bitches a little less about helping around the house.
She is great because . . . she loves baseball and Amelia Earhart–girls can like baseball too?!? GIRLS CAN FLY PLANES TOO?!?
Fun fact: She was portrayed by Abigail Breslin. In a feature film. Released in theaters.
Her sidekick is Ruthie, whose father is a banker that is surprisingly not affected by the stock market crash. Her gimmick is princesses.
Stats: A brunette! World War II – her father is a doctor stationed in England.
Takes place in: 1944
She is from: Illinois
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . annoyed that she cannot have the lifestyle to which she has grown accustomed during the war.
She is great because . . . she has glasses!
Fun fact: Her movie was “An American Girl on the Homefront,” which was produced for the Disney channel in 2006. Molly was played by Maya Ritter, and hey look, Molly Ringwald played her mom.
Her sidekick is Emily, who was sent to America from England during the war–thus, her gimmick is being not American.
Molly was one of the original three dolls. She was archived in 2013.
Stats: Blonde, blonde, blonde California girl.
Takes place in: 1974
She is from: San Francisco
She is brave, inquisitive, and helpful, but also kind of . . . a child of divorce. There is no book dealing with her tumultuous early dating attempts as she acts out.
She is cool because . . . the feminist movement is addressed in her books.
Her sidekick is Ivy, who is the only Asian-American Girl doll. Her gimmick is gymnastics.
Girl of the Year
In 2001, there was an additional line created of contemporary-era dolls called the “Girl of the Year.” If Pleasant Company was sneaking kale in with the historical line, Mattel definitely took out that kale and added more Splenda to replace it with the Girl of the Year. The social issues addressed by the characters’ stories fell by the way side with a stronger focus on . . . accessories.
LINDSEY: 2001. She’s Jewish! She has a scooter!
KAILEY: 2003. She’s white and she swims!
MARISOL: 2005. She is Latina and made the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago very upset when it was depicted as low-income. She dances!
JESS: 2006. She’s biracial! She’s half Japanese, and they needed to make a new face mold for her! Sigh.
NICKI: 2007. She’s white and trains service animals!
MIA: 2008. She’s white and is a figure skater!
CHRISSA: 2009. She’s white and has friends!
LANIE: 2010. She’s white and likes science!
KANANI: 2011. She’s biracial! She has a Hawaiian/Japanese father. She has the Aloha spirit!
MCKENNA: 2012. She’s white and likes gymnastics!
SAIGE: 2013. She’s white and likes horseback riding!
ISABELLE: 2014. She’s white and likes ballet!
These girls all have their own books as well, but their stories are less about the issues of our time (no American Girl is protesting asking where those little Nigerian girls are, sadly) and more about insular issues in the girl’s home and school. While the line half-heartedly attempts to keep these girls active and independent, the focu$ of the character$ has changed from looking to be a change in the community starting with them$elve$ to $imply achieving their own goal$. If American Girls continue down this path, it seems sadly inevitable that future dolls’ talents and interests will include selfies and not worrying their pretty little heads about it. I cannot imagine the degree to which one must love a child to buy her a $110 doll whose only appeal is accessories. Sorry, Mel’s future kids–mommy wants you to have a social conscience. You’ll play with your suffrage movement picket signs and your Goldie Blox and you’ll like it.
My American Girl
There is also a line of dolls known as My American Girl formerly known as Just Like You formerly known as American Girls of Today. There are over 60 dolls in this line. They do not supply personalities for the My American Girl dolls, and I cannot invent 60 different dolls’ Tindr blurbs about how they are independent, courageous, inquisitive, and demonstrate that solely through horseback riding / gymnastics / playing the flute / art. You’ll have to take my word for it, or dive down the rabbit hole of fan fiction about what each doll’s deal is.
You can “build” this American girl doll to look like you as long as you choose from a menu of existing dolls–doll technology has only come so far. Sadly, the American Girl I built for myself didn’t look too much like me, mostly because they don’t offer shades of brown eyes or hair, and let’s face it, No Fat Dolls. Likewise, there is a bounty of accessories that help individualize the doll so that the spirit of inclusion is honored in nearly every conceivable way (if you can afford it).
The product line has expanded to include:
- Matching clothes for dolls and their child owners
- A baby grand piano
- A science lab
- Seven different eyeglass frames
- An old school ice cream churn
- An allergy-free lunch (that includes a “Berry smoothie, a container of vegetables, two sandwich skewers, a medical bracelet and allergy stickers, and a faux allergy shot, just in case”)
- Hair extensions
- A wheelchair
- A “feel better kit” including crutches, a leg cast, a soft arm cast, a wrap bandage, a finger splint, and an ice pack
- A service dog
- Orthodontia including stick-on braces, headgear, and a retainer.
As such, millions of women and girls make their way toward the American Girl mecca: American Girl Place. I have found myself more than once with some time to kill in the area and headed in there, fully armed with a fictional niece backstory if approached for being a creepy woman alone in the American Girl store. Don’t judge me bro: That shit is lady catnip and I wasn’t allowed to have a Samantha doll growing up because there was no way in hell I was getting a $100 doll (which leads this bride-to-be to wonder why it socially acceptable to put an Xbox on a wedding registry but not Samantha when she comes out of archive?)
There are 16 stores across the United States. You can have tea with your doll (in select locations–some have cafes, while some have bistros) or treat your doll to a much needed day at the salon, where she can get her ears pierced or her hair done by a doll hair stylist (a profession I continue to strive toward, but I just can’t get French-braiding down.) There’s a doll hospital just in case you get marker on the face of your $110 doll. You can also, you know, buy shit tons and shit tons of dolls–that’s the American Girl doll way.
Maybe if you’re talking to an adult girl, a good litmus test is if she’s more fond of Kirsten or Addy or if she’s more of Mia fan. In the meantime, if you know a girl between eight and 12, maybe encourage more Samantha or Kaya in her life.