Lessons From American Girl Dolls: The Divorce Generation

As my daughter reminded me, the story is sad.

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American Girl

With more than 21 million dolls sold since 1986 and welcoming more than 46 million visitors to its retail stores, the American Girl phenomenon shapes the wish lists of countless youngsters. The catalogue alone ranks as the largest toy catalogue in the country--an unsurprising fact since (as a mother to an elementary school-aged daughter) our house seems to host a significant percentage of them.

In our family, our obsession began with Bitty baby, then evolved into a "Just Like Me" doll, and now is moving into the historical dolls, a move I celebrate. Sporting fictional chapter books that include historical facts about the time period, each doll represents a distinct moment in history. American Girl offers Kit from 1934 who lives through the Great Depression, Addy from 1864 who lives during the Civil War, or Kaya from 1764 who lives as a member of the Nez Perce. Each doll confronts a challenge defined by her era, and her story emphasizes how she finds hope and resilience while facing hardship.

As my daughter and I flipped through the catalogue discussing the dolls' merits, we found ourselves gravitating to Julie Albright from 1974. I thought, A Gen X doll! Cool! I'm Gen X! I wondered what historical event of the 70's American Girl might highlight that had changed Julie's life forever. Nixon? Inflation? Journalist Stephanie Obley summarizes Julie's story:

People who came of age in an era of widespread divorce mark the beginning of a generation that often claims to be "spiritual but not religious."

"Julie Albright's life is changing. The 9-year-old's parents have just divorced and she now lives in an apartment a few miles from her childhood home. She misses her best friend, her pet rabbit and most of all, her father. Holidays are difficult. She doesn't want to tell her friends about the divorce."

I had been reading each doll's bio out loud, enjoying a warm mother-daughter moment, but my daughter's face fell as she heard Julie's story. "Well, that's SAD!" she cried out. I quickly noted to myself that we had already read about dolls living through war, slavery, and persecution, all very sad. But then I realized that for most young children reading the American Girl catalogue, war, slavery, and persecution do not live with them; their parents do. So, for a daughter like mine, the saddest doll is the divorce doll.

As someone who studies Gen X caregiving, grief, and loss in an era of high family fragmentation, I should not have been surprised that the key marker of change for my generation lies in parental divorce. Author of the American Girl books about Julie, Megan McDonald, confirmed my realization. She writes, "Everything I read about the '70s pointed to a sharp rise in divorce rates, peaking in 1979. The claim that 'half of all marriages end in divorce' became widely accepted in the '70s." In an interview with Divorce 360, McDonald said, "I learned from watching some of my own family members go through divorce that the impact is lifelong ... My hope is that readers who are children of divorce themselves will identify with Julie and her family situation and struggle, and take some solace that they are not alone."

In the first sentence of book one, McDonald captures the upheaval of divorce for a child: "The world spun-first upside down, then right side up again ..." As Julie says good bye to her best friend from across the street and anxiously anticipates beginning a new school near her mother's apartment, she begins her new life dominated by the "switching hour;" an existence spent switching between two worlds that (as Dr. Evon Flesborg writes) will continue throughout her life until death parts her parents from her.

Presented by

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values where she currently studies Gen X caregiving and grieving. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as Chief Operating Officer of Hospice of Baton Rouge.

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