Illustration of a girl holding an American Girl doll
Illustration of a girl holding an American Girl doll
Inside scoop 3 minutes

What It Means to Raise an American Girl Now

By Jessica Grose, The New York Times Jul. 27, 2022
This article was written by Jessica Grose for The New York Times on Parenting newsletter and was originally published on July 13, 2022.

One of the images that has 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. (The American Girl company also sells unnamed, customizable dolls for the modern era whose stories are unwritten.) 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 (before the company became a Mattel subsidiary): Samantha Parkington, Kirsten Larson and Molly McIntire. 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. While I admit that I was initially drawn to Samantha’s outfits (her fur hat and plaid cape were to die for), I enjoyed the books too. Samantha is headstrong, often pushing back against her grandmother’s admonitions to be more ladylike.

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, as Amy Schiller explained in The Atlantic in 2013, 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. “The book is a bravura effort at teaching young girls about class privilege, speaking truth to power and engaging with controversial social policy, all based on empathetic encounters with people whose life experiences differ from her own,” Schiller wrote.

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! — and we would soon see Grandmary’s antiquated lectures in the rearview. 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.” (Deal with it, Grandmary!)

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, said Nina Diamond, a professor emerita in the department of marketing at DePaul University and the lead author of a 2009 paper in the Journal of Marketing titled “American Girl and the Brand Gestalt: Closing the Loop on Sociocultural Branding Research.” In it, she and her co-authors wrote: Meanings associated with these iconic brands serve to eliminate felt tensions between societal ideals and people’s day-to-day experiences, and they address the anxieties of a nation through myths or stories that affect the way people think about themselves and their lives.

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 where she had students look at the dolls as a “vehicle for teaching” and consuming “historical narratives.” Strauch told me that one of students’ projects was to create their own 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.

Memes aren’t a replacement for actual advocacy or action. They’re an escape that makes me feel a little better about raising my kids at a time that can often feel anti-girl, anti-woman and even anti-humanity. Burns doesn’t just run an American Girl Instagram account, she also works with student organizers to create real-world change. The two women who run @hellicity_merriman met working in politics. These women, all of whom are in their 20s, are communicating that even when life feels apocalyptic, both laughter and change are possible. 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.

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