American Girls Aren't Radical Anymore

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.
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Pinafores, bonnets, and candlelabra crowns: For early American Girl doll owners, the historically accurate clothes, doll furniture, and accessories brought bygone eras to vivid, tangible life. The initial focus of the brand was on the historical characters, starting with the original three from 1986—Scandinavian farmsteader Kirsten, Victorian aristocrat Samantha, and World War II patriot Molly—who were soon joined by Felicity, a tomboy from colonial days, and Addie, who bravely escapes from slavery on the eve of the Civil War. Each doll had plotlines developed over a six-book series (with illustrations that perfectly matched the extensive catalog offerings). The books all followed the same sequence—we meet each girl, she learns a lesson, celebrates Christmas, birthdays, and summers, and faces a major life change. Mary Ann McGrath, professor of marketing at Loyola University says, "The stories from history are about strong girls facing crises like slavery and the Depression in strong ways."

Initially owned by the Pleasant Company, founded by former schoolteacher Pleasant T. Rowland, American Girl underwent an incremental but noticeable shift after their acquisition by Mattel in 1998. In 2008, historical dolls that were previously considered core to the brand were "archived," the doll term for "going to a nice farm." Samantha, Kirsten and the headstrong colonial character, Felicity, are no longer sold by American Girl. These characters represent more than just the original characters of an iconic brand—their archiving represents a lost sensibility about teaching girls to understand thorny historical controversies and build political consciousness.

According to American Girl spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos, the archiving of Samantha, Kirsten and others was simply an inventory decision, to make room for new product lines. Spanos says American Girl "still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand." But the marketing spotlights suggest otherwise. Previously known as The American Girls Collection, indicating their core importance to the brand, dolls of previous eras have been officially renamed "Historical Characters" in order to give more attention to the customizable "My American Girl" (advertised as a doll that looks "just like you!") and the annual "Girl of the Year." These product lines offer blander avatars who reflect only the present time period and appearance of contemporary girls. Girls of the Year have two biographical books, compared to the six provided for each historical character. The current catalogue leads off with the My American Girl offerings, followed by 'Dress Like Your Doll,' '2013 Doll of The Year,' and 'Books and Magazines.' Only when you get to the fifth section, on page 38, do "Historical Characters" make an appearance. They are almost an afterthought on the website, where the homepage features matching doll and girl outfits, plus the product line and online game for Saige, the latest Girl of the Year.

Saige is white and upper-middle-class, just like McKenna the gymnast and Lanie the amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast, both previous Girls of the Year. 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.

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Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The NationSalonThe Daily Beast, and The American Prospect. Her website is amybessschiller.com.

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