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How Mattel is Ruining American Girl Dolls

How Mattel is Ruining American Girl Dolls

If you’re a daughter of the 80s or 90s, the American Girl line of dolls, accessories and books is probably near and dear to your heart. Founded in 1986, the brand initially explored historical characters and themes, like World War II, the American colonies, and even slavery and the underground railroad. Each doll in the line had her own unique story to tell, spread over an illustrated six book series.

While parts of the books simply show how the characters would have lived their lives in a particular time period, celebrating birthdays and Christmas, each character also struggled with the major challenges of her time. Little girls love these books because they can connect with history on a personal level, through characters just like themselves. Teachers and parents love them because they’re a simple way to make history more interesting.

However, if you try to find the historical books and dolls today, you’ll be in for a shock: several of the flagship characters of the brand have been retired entirely, and the remaining original dolls have been quietly downplayed year after year to make room for more “modern” characters.

This shift may seem puzzling for anyone who remembers how popular these characters were in their childhood. That is, until you learn that in 1998, American Girl was acquired by Mattel, the makers of Barbie.

The historical characters tackled some of the most controversial issues of their day, including child labor laws, clashes between early pioneers and Native Americans, and even escaped slaves. By contrast, the modern characters spend their days organizing bake sales and planting organic gardens in their backyards. While encouraging young girls to be involved in their communities is a great message, it’s not a revolutionary one.

In a nostalgic essay recently published in The Atlantic, writer Amy Schiller neatly sums up the issue:

With a greater focus on appearance, increasingly mild character development, and innocuous political topics, a former character-building toy has become more like a stylish accessory.


American Girl once provided a point of entry for girls who have matured into thoughtful, critical, empowered citizens. Now the company’s identity feels as smooth, unthreatening and empty as the dolls on their shelves.

If you’ve ever thought about buying your child one of the historical American Girl dolls, now might be your last chance to do it. Mattel is continuing to slowly retire the historical dolls and large parts of their collections and shows no sign of changing direction.

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Photo credit: Todd Dailey

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6:43PM PDT on Oct 27, 2014

I'm really disappointed in Mattel, getting rid of the iconic dolls, and though the have brought Samantha back (for a limited time) and she has all different stuff. Was it that painful for them to stick with the original. I also really miss how the magazine was laid out. My family definitely wasn't well off by any means, and it was a REALLY big deal when I got Molly one Christmas. Anyways I wanted Molly to have friends so I cut out the full to scale pictures of the other dolls and paste them to cardboard and have a party. And if nothing else why don't they come up with a new girl of the year that has to face some real problems of today, like sticking up for gay rights, or maybe taking part of a historical experience like 9/11 or went to school at Sandy Hook, something more than winning the gymnastics tournament.

2:53AM PDT on Sep 17, 2013

Mattel has put their nasty ugly pink into the AG colors. I hate that color.

2:10PM PDT on May 29, 2013

The books and historical value are the best parts of the old American Girl dolls. I visited the store in NYC recently and was so disappointed to see that the original dolls have been retired. I agree with the author of this article. Mattel has ruined these historically valuable dolls.

1:27PM PDT on May 12, 2013

How can kids mindlessly consume if they are thinking all the time?

8:35AM PDT on May 11, 2013

Sarah H. The new ones are made to look like their owners. The store, and catalogs (The reason I know about this. My daughter didn't have one. Too expensive) then sell doll clothes and matching outfits for the girls. I remember that they were overpriced too.

6:03AM PDT on May 11, 2013

What are they replacing them with? the Article doesn't say.

1:49AM PDT on May 10, 2013


7:20PM PDT on May 9, 2013

never heard of them

3:50PM PDT on May 9, 2013

Even most Americans (which I am) found these dolls to be oversized, pricey Barbies. You could go to the American Girl shop in NYC, and spend literally hundreds of dollars on clothes, and accessories. Just retail madness that parents allowed themselves to be sucked up into.

9:03PM PDT on May 8, 2013

I am not sure this is a well rounded story. I just looked at the site and while some of the dolls are newer the ones I bought for my granddaughter (now 17) are still there. The dolls are still the same sweet little girl doll style they have always been. If the newer dolls have significant story boards behind them I don't understand the problem. Some girls have their mother's dolls and already have some of the older dolls. I like the more contemporary dolls with contemporary situations they are dealing with. An example is Josefina. She is a Mexican American whose mother has died. She is learning to live in her new world with her aunt coming to live with them and old ways verses new ways. Real situations for a real world.

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