I’m not an expert, but I’ve been involved in raising several American Girls: daughters, granddaughters & now great granddaughters. And I hope I’ve learned a thing or two.
Here’s one: several of the American Girl doll characters were very valuable for one of them, and me, at the turn of the millennium.
I never bought any of the dolls, which were made to resemble girls from different eras in American history: great idea but too pricey, I discovered the series, and one character, at the library, in an associated audiobook. It was Addy Walker: an enslaved girl, who escapes from sun-baked southern tobacco fields to freedom. In six connected stories, her family begins to cope with the opportunities — and hardships — of a free life in a still unequal American society.
In those years I often traveled with my oldest granddaughter, driving us for hours to family and Quaker events. Good books on tape held our attention and helped pass many miles. They also promoted the appeal of reading, one of my goals for her.
Addy was an audio and read-aloud favorite for me. My granddaughter is multiracial, and Addy’s stories were mulch for the continuing task of nurturing and navigating her growing identity in our somewhat more free but still unequal world.
They also dealt, delicately, with class: For instance, Addy’s family goes to work in a dressmaking shop run by a Quaker businesswoman. This owner is no mere saintly icon. She’s on the side of freedom, but is an unsentimental demanding boss, pressing for efficient, quality work that can be sold for a hefty profit. Nothing wrong with that!
I soon found that Addy’s stories were collected in a special keepsake edition, with gilt-edge pages. Again pricey, and my budget was tight, but where the doll didn’t tempt me, the book was irresistible.
Soon enough, I found other titles in the growing series. One other favorite was about Kit Kittredge, who sets out to become a reporter for her own homemade newspaper, covering the impact of the Great Depression on her family and community.
As a number of the books accumulated, those years flew by. My granddaughter is now a mom of her own two American Girls, who are preschoolers in a society that seems stranger to me every year, and recently quite ominous. Will Addy and her fictional sisters be of any use or interest to them.
The series and the dolls has survived at least. And they’re familiar enough to have become memes and jokes for some in the rising generation. I choose to believe this is mainly a good thing, because it looks like signs of life, when too much else has become spoiled and degraded in their culture.
The mainstream press has even noticed these “remixes,” and the excerpts below pay the dolls and their stories some tributes. Will this irony-heavy notice help them continue as keepsakes for my great-granddaughters? I wish Kit Kittredge was here to work with Addy to get that story, and hope it would turn into more than aa couple of quickie Tik-Tok reels.
From the New York Times: What It Means to Raise an American Girl Now
By Jessica Grose, Opinion Writer — July 13, 2022
[From the Jessica Grose On Parenting newsletter. . . . A journalist and novelist explores what it means to be a parent today, analyzing the health, economics and culture of the American family.]
One of the images that have stuck with me from the pandemic’s early days is the doll hospital my daughters made from cardboard boxes. Not long after their world was locked down, my children’s American Girl dolls were afflicted with an unnamed illness and put to bed for weeks. My own girls, who were 7 and 3 at the time, took their self-appointed jobs as doll nurses very seriously, and would frequently check on their patients, keeping me and my husband apprised of their progress.
There was a reason my kids chose their American Girl dolls and not their Barbies or L.O.L. Surprise! dolls for this scenario: American Girls look more like actual girls than a lot of popular dolls do, and the form of realistic play that they facilitate is a healthy way of processing stress. Psychologists say that building a story around an upsetting event can help kids regain a sense of control.
For the uninitiated, some American Girl dolls have elaborate, historically informed backstories, which are described in a series of books. . . . Kit Kittredge, for example, is an aspiring journalist living through the Great Depression. Her tagline is, “Weather hard times with grit and gratitude.” But when I asked my younger daughter recently what she likes about Kit, she didn’t say anything about her plucky perseverance. She matter-of-factly said, “Kit looks like me and her eyes close so she can go to sleep.”
I was an American Girl devotee when I was their age. There were only three of them when they hit the market in 1986 . . . .. I had Samantha, who was born at the end of the Gilded Age and then orphaned, living through the start of the Progressive Era with her well-to-do Grandmary. . . .
American Girls representing other eras, ethnicities and parts of our country have been added over the years: There’s Nanea Mitchell, who lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor; Addy Walker, who escaped slavery in North Carolina; and Josefina Montoya, who lives in New Mexico when it’s still part of Mexico. What all their stories have in common . . . is that they interface with the issues of their time. In one book, the wealthy Samantha gives a speech in front of her school about the horrors of child labor. . . .
Their stories have something else in common. They highlight a cultural narrative of continual progress for girls and women. When I played with the dolls in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the prevailing message I absorbed was that girls could do anything and be anything — girl power!
. . .That narrative was always a fantasy, and very obviously not as true for everyone. (The cheapest doll-and-book set cost $74 in 1990, underscoring how out of reach the fantasy, and the dolls, were and are for many kids.) But for me, the message was still something hopeful to cling to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise an American girl in this moment, when continual progress — for my daughters, for all girls — doesn’t feel inevitable. Their right to bodily autonomy is more conditional. The backlash against not conforming to gendered ideals seems more virulent than in recent memory. American children are growing up at a moment when, seemingly, we can’t even have a wholesome Independence Day celebration without mass casualties. How do I introduce my daughters to the reality of a world like this without making them despair?
Remixing the American Girl
Maybe part of the answer is telling the truth in all its absurd failure and glory. Several brilliant American Girl doll meme accounts on Instagram have done just that. They’ve made me laugh and, even though they’re laced with dark irony, they still retain some of the plucky hopefulness of Kit and Samantha. These accounts take photos of the American Girls and put them in ridiculous situations for a doll. Many of their posts portray the dolls witnessing random historical moments — like when Dan Quayle misspelled the word “potato” — with their blank yet slightly knowing half-smiles dominating the images.
Some of the memes from an account called @hellicity_merriman start with the prompt “We need an American Girl doll who …” My favorite silly example: “we need an american girl doll who eats cheese out of the bag with her hand.”
Other examples of these sharp memes are more politically resonant. A meme account whose Instagram handle is a bawdy play on “Kit Kittredge” posted a viral image after Roe v. Wade fell, highlighting the states where the Nixon-era American Girl doll Julie may have had more access to abortion in 1974 than we do today.
Lydia Burns, who is 24 and runs that account, told me that when she was a girl growing up in Kentucky, American Girl dolls were considered edgy, and some people at her church boycotted them. In 2005 conservative groups were upset because the American Girl brand supported a charity called Girls Inc., which the American Family Association claimed was “a pro-abortion, pro-lesbian advocacy group.” Burns said her mother is a feminist who stuck by the American Girl dolls and allowed her daughter to continue playing with them despite the blowback. The books and the dolls, Burns said, “exposed me to ideas of girls who don’t look like me and a set of history” that involved cultural and political conflict, offering perspectives she wasn’t necessarily getting at school.
On a certain level, what these adult creators are doing is the same thing my kids were doing with their doll hospital: working through the distressing news of the day with their doll icons. This is something enthusiasts have always done with American Girl dolls . . . .
Diamond describes American Girl as one of the most successful “open source” brands, meaning that all of its constituents — kids, their parents, journalists, cultural commentators — are contributing to and remixing the American Girls’ meaning in the world. And, by extension, adding a small piece to the image — and aspiration — that actual American girls and women have of ourselves.
Tara Strauch, an associate professor of history at Centre College, taught a class in which she had students look at the dolls as a “vehicle for teaching” and consuming “historical narratives.” Strauch told me that one of the students’ projects was to create a historical doll’s story. One student created an American Girl doll who lived through 9/11 while also figuring out her sexuality. “Those of us who grew up with them are still trying to use them to understand the world, putting our thoughts and ideals into their mouths in fun and subversive” ways, Strauch told me.
. . . . As my colleague Valeriya Safronova put it in an article about these memes:
Each image imagines the American Girl dolls surviving highly stressful, sometimes catastrophic events. Within the world of these memes, there is nothing the world won’t throw at an American Girl doll, and there is nothing she can’t do. She, a representation of the childhoods of countless girls, can succeed where others have failed.
There’s a can-do attitude to the memes, one that I already see in my older daughter. She’s only 9, and any time she learns something awful about the world she responds with outrage and a desire to change it, urgently. When she saw a magazine headline about the rapid decline of bee populations due to climate change, she earnestly exclaimed, “We need to save all the bees!”
I want her to bottle that energy and keep it with her, at least in some small way, even as she becomes increasingly aware of the flawed world around her as she grows. She’s a few years away from marching on the National Mall, but she’s learning that progress doesn’t happen without effort and determination, and that’s a message any American girl should know by heart.
The world can be a bleak place, and every story doesn’t have a happy ending, but my daughters’ American Girl dolls eventually left their cardboard hospital and made a full recovery. We need an American girl who helps save the bees, and maybe it will be my kid.
From the New York Times: American Girl Doll Jokes Are All the Rage
The “We need an American Girl doll who …” memes suggests alternate story lines for the popular toys and provide sly social criticism.
By Valeriya Safronova
Published June 23, 2022/Updated July 13, 2022
Since 1986, American Girl dolls like Molly McIntire, recognizable by her braids and round glasses, and Josefina Montoya, dressed in a long red-and-blue skirt and moccasins, have transported children who played with them to Illinois during World War II or to what is now New Mexico, during the early 19th century.
Books like “Samantha Helps a Friend” and “Felicity’s Surprise” have functioned as windows onto history for young readers who eagerly followed their favorite character’s adventures.
Now, a meme has sprung up on social media in which people cheekily suggest expanding the historical American Girl doll universe to include other historical dramas, many of them veering into the absurd.
They begin with the phrase “We need an American Girl doll who …” Some fill in the second part with major events covered by American textbooks, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Others are more obscure: One meme imagines an American Girl doll who survived the dancing plague of 1518.
Other variations refer to archetypes from recent history, like an American Girl doll who “is a whistleblower” or one “who scammed millions from investors with the promise of a start-up social club.”
A recent meme on the @hellicity_merriman Instagram account, which has become a destination of sorts for people seeking humorous American Girl content, features an empty-eyed doll in a bonnet and a long blue skirt smiling with an old-timey ship sailing across the water behind her. The overlaid text says: “We need an american girl doll who was on the mayflower in 1620 but fell off.”
In another variation, a doll in a beret and Converse sneakers stands in front of a pile of detergent packages with the words, “we need an american girl doll who ate a tide pod and almost died.”
The “more ironic you can be, the more we’ve found the posts resonate,” said Barrett Adair, who runs the @hellicity_merriman account with a friend. The account was created in February and is named after Felicity Merriman, an American Girl.
The early memes on the @hellicity_merriman account are more straightforward, combining images of American Girl dolls — symbols of childhood and innocence — with incongruent grown-up concepts like Brazilian butt lifts and OnlyFans, the website where some people sell nude or sexual images and videos of themselves.
A multipart series describes the different ways that American Girl dolls would consume cannabis. (Kit Kittredge, from the 1930s, would roll joints with Bible papers, and Kirsten Larson, who was a pioneer, would use a pipe made out of a bull’s horn.)
. . . Ms. Adair’s favorite doll, Samantha Parkington, has an adopted sister named Nellie O’Malley who spent her childhood working in a factory and as a servant. “The stories are really bleak,” Ms. Adair said.
The @hellicity_merriman founders see their feed as “a bit of an escape.” And that escapism could be especially important for their audiences: millennials and Gen Zers who have publicly expressed dismay at the crises their generations have lived through in the last couple of years, including the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. “It puts things in a bit of perspective,” Ms. Adair said. . . .
Ms. Adair sees something simultaneously ironic and empowering in it. Each image imagines the American Girl dolls surviving highly stressful, sometimes catastrophic events. Within the world of these memes, there is nothing the world won’t throw at an American Girl doll, and there is nothing she can’t do. She, a representation of the childhoods of countless girls, can succeed where others have failed.
“An American Girl doll will sign the executive order to cancel all student debt,” Ms. Adair said. “It’s come down to them now.”
Valeriya Safronova is a reporter for the Style section. @vsaffron