Book Reviews

All Dolled Up

How American Girl transformed the doll world—and why millennials love it so

By Jayne Ross | November 30, 2023
Smart Destinations/Flickr
Smart Destinations/Flickr

Dolls of Our Lives: Why We Can’t Quit American Girl by Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks, Feiwel & Friends, 256 pp., $28.99

“Since the beginning of time—since the first little girl ever existed—there have been dolls.” So proclaims Helen Mirren in the opening scene of Greta Gerwig’s summer blockbuster, Barbie. “But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls,” she says—that is, until Barbie came along. “Yes,” Mirren says, “Barbie changed everything.”

Twenty-seven years after Ruth Handler brought that iconic blonde into the world, another woman found herself fed up with baby dolls and Barbies. Pleasant Rowland, a newscaster turned educational product developer, thought girls deserved dolls that nurtured their interests beyond fashion and motherhood. In 1986, she created American Girl: a line of meticulously researched dolls, clothes, accessories, and books inspired by pivotal moments in American history. The brand was a hit. In its first four years, Rowland’s Pleasant Company turned a profit of $30 million.

American Girl is as much a phenomenon today as it was in the ’80s—and not just among children. Adult collectors, cosplayers, and meme creators abound. The dolls crop up in pop culture juggernauts from Saturday Night Live to The Last of Us. It’s no secret why: according to Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks, authors of Dolls of Our Lives, Rowland’s “genius lay in articulating a vision of girlhood she could shape through her company, a vision that would influence how girls saw themselves, the kind of play that helped them create themselves and memories along the way.”

Mahoney and Horrocks are historians whose childhood love for American Girl brought them together in graduate school. Dolls of Our Lives began in 2019 as a podcast originally titled American Girls, and the two were floored by the response it received. “Lots of listeners who didn’t grow up to pursue history as a career wanted to be part of this burgeoning community,” they write. “What bound us together was the fact that these stories still seemed to have a lot to teach us.”

As Mahoney and Horrocks tell it, American Girl’s runaway success was grounded not only in its innovative combination of dolls and tie-in educational products, but also in its commitment to take young girls seriously. Inspired by a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Rowland recognized the appeal and power of placing girls in an imagined version of the past. She and her team of designers created nine-year-old characters at once relatable and aspirational, beginning with Kirsten (a hard-working 19th-century Swedish immigrant adjusting to her new home in Minnesota), Samantha (a bookish Victorian orphan with a gift for public speaking), and Molly (a World War II–era Scottish American who tries constantly to reinvent herself). These initial dolls and their successors represent an ideal sort of girlhood, facing hardships large and small with just the right amount of loyalty and courage.

As American Girl’s revenues increased, so did its output. By the ’90s, it had become a “full-blown lifestyle brand.” Pleasant Company released cookbooks, craft books, and other supplements to its historical character lines, plus contemporary growing-up guides like the much-beloved The Care and Keeping of You, a sort of Puberty 101 for pre-adolescent girls. (It was recently revamped to be more inclusive.) American Girl magazine launched in 1992, a “space [for girls] to talk about the anxieties and triumphs of growing up in their own words … without making them the subject of a joke or shaming them.” In 1995, the company introduced a doll line called “Girl of Today,” allowing girls to select a doll that looked like them (or, in many cases, a friend or sister they longed to have). “She’s just like you, you’re a part of history, too!” declared one catalogue snippet.

For women of a certain age, the print catalogue has become the stuff of legend. “The only thing better than owning something from American Girl was dreaming about buying something from the American Girl catalogue,” write Mahoney and Horrocks. Doll owners and their hopeful counterparts drooled over the catalogue’s expensive offerings and tantalizing descriptions, some even pushing their parents to read from it “as if it were a Dickens novel.”

Of course, American Girl exists primarily to sell products rather than daydreams, and Mahoney and Horrocks admit that it hasn’t always done so gracefully. From the beginning, they write, Rowland “not only wanted to preserve and commodify the past”—her version of it—”she wanted to encourage and sell memory making.” And although American Girl “wanted to be there for all girls, in theory … this was a call and response relationship with a high price for entry.” Many felt left out because they couldn’t afford to own a doll, and others felt they were not meant to. Mahoney and Horrocks repeatedly point out the brand’s heteronormative, largely white take on history. The “flattening of difference and erasure of racism” present in American Girl’s early stories, they write, “is a comfort mostly to white people,” representing “the tension between dedication to authenticity and the reality of wanting to attract a mostly white clientele.” Notably, the first Black American Girl doll, Addy (released in 1993), is a formerly enslaved character whose creation continues to elicit complicated emotional responses from Black girls and women. (For a more in-depth account of Addy’s development, turn to Aisha Harris’s brilliant 2016 Slate article “The Making of an American Girl,” to which Mahoney and Horrocks only dedicate a couple of paragraphs.)

Unfortunately, if you’re not an American Girl initiate, Dolls of Our Lives will likely lose you with its casual namedropping of particular characters and its hashtag-laden millennial humor. Even if you are intimately familiar with the brand, you might be disappointed to find that Mahoney and Horrocks largely ignore American Girl’s output after Mattel’s 1998 takeover. Missing, for example, is any meaningful discussion of the significant brand ventures of later years, including the 14 feature films based on American Girl books.

These frustrations aside, Mahoney and Horrocks have produced an insightful, often laugh-out-loud guide to one of the hallmarks of millennial American girlhood. “Our play really matters,” they write, and “the joy of reconnecting with American Girl or the things we loved from childhood is not the return it presents to childish ways, but the opportunity to take part in things that make us feel like our truest selves.” Reading their book is a bit like gaining entrance to (or renewing membership in) a joyfully nostalgic club. It’s a shame that “the Golden Age of Pleasant Company,” as they call it, is over—the historical product line has shrunk; the magazine has shuttered. The brand’s legacy, however, is alive and well.

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