There has been a lot of commotion on the internet lately about the changes that American Girl dolls and books are going through, particularly, as far as I’ve seen, in response to articles in The Washington Post and The Atlantic. While the iconic historical dolls, such as Molly and Addy, continue to be sold, American Girl, now owned by Mattel I would like to point out, is expanding their “Doll of the Year” campaign to release a modern doll every year that deals with more contemporary issues. And as a child of the ’90’s who grew up loving American Girl, I wanted to put my two scents in.
Everyone had a favorite doll, and mine was Molly. I feel like a lot of American Girl reflections begin with “I chose ____ because she looked like me”, and American Girl has been capitalizing on that ever since I was an avid follower with the option to create your own doll – something that I always poured over whenever I got my American Girl catalog, but never actually had. That was okay though because I wasn’t into the dolls as much as I was in it for the stories.
Yes, Molly has brown hair and so do I, but I don’t have glasses and my hair has never been manageable enough to be whipped easily into Molly’s braids. I’m not exactly sure why she was my favorite. Maybe because she was the most modern girl at the time (they have since made Julie, a girl of the ’70’s), or maybe it’s because her life was the most like mine. I’m not sure. But Molly was the way to go.
I also want to point out that I was completely obsessed with The Sound of Music at this time as well. We owned it on VHS and I probably watched it about once every few months. I have been on The Sound of Music tour, I knew all the songs and all the children’s names, and I even owned a dirdl.
I honestly don’t know which came first for me The Sound of Music, or Molly, but these two interests of mine pulled together into a fascination with World War II that started at the age of eight. I didn’t end up majoring in history in college or anything but I have always been interested in the subject, particularly in World War II which grew into a fascination with the 20th century. (See my reading choices in historical fiction here, here, and here.)
As school continued, this interest expanded to include the World War I era as well, (see reading choices here, my obsession with Downton Abbey, a paper I wrote in high school about how World War I set the stage for triggering World War II, the Modern America class I took in college, and the research I am doing for the historical aspects of my story idea.) Thanks, Molly!
I don’t know if all this can be traced directly back to Molly or not, but I do think it has to do with the fact that I was introduced to history not through a dry textbook, or a documentary, but through interesting historical characters who were my age and went on fun, exciting, historically accurate adventures.
Even though I didn’t like the other dolls as much as Molly I still learned much more about the Victorian era, slavery, and The Revolutionary War than I would have otherwise at that age. And just as I was about to outgrow American Girl (but while I was still very much into it) they came out with Kit from the Great Depression, so I learned about that era as well. Plus she liked to write and she had a typewriter – how much cooler can you get?
With their Doll of the Year campaign, American Girl is focusing on more contemporary stories and dolls that face similar issues to those of their owners. Issues such as struggling in school, bullying, and overcoming everyday obstacles, whether they are big or small are addressed. American Girl has always been quick to tackle topics like these, whether it is through their books, their magazine, or the other publications that they put out such as Help! or other advice books.
I don’t know these newer stories as well, but if they refrain from belittling the plots, characters, or issues, (the jury’s still out on this one – a girl who likes to swim in the pool but is afraid of a lake. And that’s it? Oh dear…) I believe that they can stay true to the company. Who knows, if I was into gymnastics as a nine year old maybe I would really connect with McKenna, the girl of the year from 2012? But for me it would have to depend on the story itself.
What I don’t agree with is the discontinuation of some of the historical characters. Yes, they still have Addy, Molly, Kit, and many other girls, and they have since come out with newer characters, such as Caroline who lives in upstate New York during the War of 1812. But they have discontinued others, such as Felicity, Kirsten, and Samantha. Okay, so I never could get into Kirsten’s story, (see the article from The Washington Post) but Felicity? The Revolutionary War? That’s where the whole thing began! American Girl, emphasis on American. Okay, they still have her books which is great, but if Felicity had been my favorite (she was probably my second favorite. I had the doll and man, did I know about the Revolutionary War as a child because of it) and I wanted the doll and it didn’t exist, I would be really sad. Also she had some great outfits. And that tea set as well.
And okay, I wasn’t as into Samantha either, but I did read the books, and I feel like some of the things that she deals with, like the Suffragette movement, are obvious things to cover, especially for a company aimed at young girls. History was always what their company has been based on and when that’s cut down it is a slippery slope to just becoming another toy company. I do like all the empowerment stuff that they emphasize for young girls, but I feel like that springs from the historical stories. That’s how many girls are introduced to American Girl, or at least it was for me.
And don’t even get me started on the changes that Mattel has made to the dolls themselves. Dolls are now skinner and wearing makeup, or at least lipstick. And are still aimed at 9 year old girls. As if our culture isn’t obsessed with looks and dealing with the consequences enough as it is. “Pre Mattel” outfits will be a little tight on the Mattel dolls. I always hated Barbie dolls, but don’t go making a franchise that stood out for focusing on history and empowerment for young girls all about looks. That’s where I draw the line!