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.
Photo credit: Todd Dailey