The Dumbing Down of Girlhood: The American Girl Story

The price point and consumerism aside, what was magical about American Girl dolls and books was that the brand gave our daughters a sense of their place in history. It showed them that girls have always been present and doing amazing, brave, and daring things. You can’t be what you can’t see.

As my friend Soraya Chemaly pointed out in a post last week, when we consider public life in the United States alone there are 5,193 public, outdoor statues. Guess how many of those are of men? 4,799. That means 394 of 5, 193 statues are women. We have no women on our everyday currency, no public holidays marking any significant effort made by any woman in this country.

American Girls used to tell a girl’s place in fighting child labor, slavery, taming the West, treatment of Native Americans, war time hardships…. American Girl tells a much different story now. Because Mattel.

Two great posts here….

“Organic gardening and school art supplies are perfectly acceptable issues for young girls to tackle, but contrasted with Samantha taking on the entire practice of child labor (as opposed to just rescuing her one friend from factory exploitation), these plotlines keep good works close to home, focusing only on issues that affect their own backyards and school days. Problems that mainly affect people who, echoing the My American Girl dolls appeal, look “just like me.” After the entry-level critiques of capitalism (Samantha), Native American persecution (Kirsten), and traditional domestic roles for women (Felicity), perhaps the time has come for a doll who takes her fourth-grade class on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street.

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. Radford says, “I was really focused on the historical and fictional stories of the dolls. My [younger] cousins seem to view their dolls as one more item they need to be cool. They seem focused on having more outfits than their friends as opposed to connecting to the stories.” 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.” – Amy Schiller

and here…..

“The image is embarrassing — privileged, comfortable, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems that a bake sale wouldn’t solve. Life comes to them in manageable, small bites, pre-chewed. No big adventures. No high stakes. All the rough edges are sanded off and the Real Dangers excluded. It’s about as much fun as walking around in a life vest.” – Alexandra Petri

American Girl then....














American Girl now......


  1. Those dolls and books were hot when I was working in the bookstore, and looking forward to the day when my daughter would be old enough for the books, which I though were excellent… Then the Pleasant Company sold to Mattel, and everything went to hell. It was the Barbie-fication of a wonderful historical idea. 🙁

  2. This is so painful for me. I didn’t keep the books that came with my Kirsten and my Molly. Maybe, I can find a library that has the books and give the dolls to it, so that children can act out the bravery of girls in the past, like I did. Or maybe I must keep my Girls and find the 90s books, in case Matel disappears the historical dolls altogether. How do I preserve the awesome in my own dolls from my own girlhood without opening the door to the materialism in the brand as it’s been made over by Evil? *whimper*

  3. Oh look. Yet another brand that’s been pink washed. Maybe they’ve been talking to Lego too? *sigh* Why do they insist on ruining quality toys like this?

    • Not only the pink washing, but the quality of the dolls has gone way down. When Pleasant Company owned American Girl the dolls were made in Germany and were top quality. Now Mattel produces them in China and they are nothing like the dolls we grew up with. In so many ways.

  4. Caitlin says:

    I was devastated to discover that they had “archived my childhood” – Kirsten is no longer even carried in my local (VA) American Girl doll store. They have a few of the historical dolls in museum-like tableaus, but the majority are the “new” dolls. I did like the girl in a wheelchair – disability rights are worthy of a modern American girl cause! – but was otherwise very disappointed that my girls will not have the same relationship with the dolls that I did. It was the history that made the dolls so powerful and interesting!

  5. Rachelle says:

    How sad! I didn’t even know American Girls dolls existed until I was an adult, but I read all of the books as they arrived at my small-town public library when I was a kid. I definitely could picture myself changing the world, just like Samantha and Molly and Addy. I want my daughter to have the same experiences.

  6. de Pizan says:

    The American girls were well after my time, but I agree this is a terrible move.

    The gap between the statues honoring men and women is disgusting…yet sadly not surprising. I wanted to point out though (although this was in Soraya Chemaly’s article, not yours), that the part about first statue of a celebrated woman in 1884 is wrong. The first statue(s) of women in the US were the start of about 5 memorials, all of the same woman, done in 1861, 1874 and 1879–all of them were of Hannah Duston. She’s forgotten today, but was widely celebrated during the 1700 and 1800s. (it’s a pretty unpleasant story, all the more unusual that she was so lauded in a time when women were expected to be weak and nonviolent)

  7. Courtney says:

    The substance of the new historical characters I cannot speak to, but I had (have still!) Samantha and Felicity (Barbies were not allowed and my parents sacrificed to get me these dolls), and even back then they had a separate line of modern dolls that were supposed to look like you. I find your now and then pictures slightly misleading in that regard. If I recall, pink was always prevalent in the modern lines, too, so that’s not a new development. Apart from the pink merchandising stereotype, I see that line as pretty valuable in terms of options, teaching girls the power of choice in the customization steps, and celebration of many types of coloring and-to a less successful degree-features. I definitely join people in bemoaning the loss of certain historical characters, but I still see an emphasis on personality over appearance when I perused the website (in truth they always conflated style with personality to some degree imo), and it seems as if they still cover topics like slavery, civil rights, war, poverty, immigration, race relations…? I’d be curious to see a more in depth critique of the plots themselves rather than their marketing or expansion. Again, I haven’t read the new story lines, though I’m encouraged that they still have historical dolls. I’d love a Chinese-American historical doll though!

    • Courtney –
      The photo was not meant to be misleading. I am a little older than you, but I was a girl when American Girl (then owned by Pleasant Company) launched and I can assure you that from the quality of the actual dolls to the doll story lines (the historical books are still really good) to the focus of the brand…everything has gone downhill since Mattel took over. As for the photos, one photo shows the dolls discussed that have been discontinued, but had been the focus and heart of the company. They have been replaced by the dolls in the second photo, which are now the focus of the company but don’t carry the same weight as the original did. The focus has become very watered down and bland compared to the rich and layered historical stories that brand was built on.

      Here’s an interesting comment from our facebook discussion: “I’ve been following the AG line for almost 20 years now and I would have to agree that even the new historical characters are dumbed down. Just look at Addy’s accessories and see how they are functional and detailed and are tied to her story and family history. I don’t think Caroline’s toy top or Marie-Grace’s fan has the same umph. I don’t think the company had to get rid of some dolls to make room for others, which seems to be what some people are suggesting.” -A. Olson

      • Courtney says:

        Thank you for the clarification and reply 🙂

      • Courtney says:

        Thank you for the clarification and reply 🙂 Also, I knew you would never intentionally mislead, sorry that may have come off as less respectful than intended!

  8. I agree. Cecile and MG’s accessories are mashed together. They don’t even have school supplies, and Cecile doesn’t even have a bed!

    Caroline’s birthday dress was so cheap! Instead of lace, she has stickers designed to look like lace. As if the kids wouldn’t know the difference. The dress is also very springy when her birthday is in the fall. No attention to detail was given, and it just seem like they threw something together. I know we’re in a Recession, but goodness.

    No school supplies from her either, no holiday accessories. They stopped separating the books as meet story, school, christmas, birthday, summer, and winter, so that shortened the amount of accessories.

    I feel they are focusing on the Girls of the Year and the JLY dolls. Girls of the year have had 4 movies in the last couples of years instead of the historical dolls. The girls of the year book number has been increasing. The GOTY coming out in 2014 will have 4 books!

    I understand in Kaya’s case, as Native Americans lived a simpler life. But Cecile? She’s wealthy. She should have many accessories.

    It’s sickening. But they will keep doing it as long as it sells.

    • Isabelle GOTY 2014 has 3 books. I also agree.

      • The historicals are really empty now. Caroline’s books lack totally. Marie Grace and Cecile are too. My american girl just is dolls that look like you. One time I went to the AG place and a girl said,”Mom I want the doll that looks like me!” and way to go mom! She said,”Why get that?Get a historical like Molly!” I totally agree.

  9. Well, that’s only the author of this article’s opinion. In my opinion, I think that American Girl is just expanding their line of dolls so that will interest more girls because some girls just aren’t into history. Yes, I agree that the historical character’s stories have more power and inspiration to them which is good. But playing with dolls is about using your imagination and creating your own stories and some people think they can relate better to the AG’s of now. As I said earlier, AG is just expanding their line to more girls. For example, the My AG’s make everyone feel like their doll is unique and diverse. Which is good. Very good. So it doesn’t matter what kind of story your doll comes with, because it is really up to YOU to create her story, not the company’s.


  1. […] I read those books as a kid and LOVED THEM. And they were off-white. So THERE. Anyway. I digress. I guess I wasn’t alone in noticing this. Tags: Awesome Stuff I Found Permalink: Weekly Awesome 5.8 Discuss: 0 […]

  2. […] of her selection of dolls on the basis of appearance and potential for play, stands opposed to the American Girl purists, who acknowledge the value of only the first seven historical dolls created by the Pleasant Company: […]

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