This article was written by Ruth Etiesit Samuel for Huffpost and was originally published on July 10, 2022.
The women behind viral American Girl-themed meme pages say the dolls have become a rallying cry for the series of unfortunate historical events we’ve been living through.
For years, millennial and Gen Z girls eagerly awaited the catalogs, circling every product imaginable for holiday and birthday wish lists. The now cringey “The Care & Keeping of You” book series educated us on health, well-being and puberty. The “Just Like Me” — now “Truly Me” dolls — influenced our own lives, looks and personalities. And then Addy Walker, a young girl enslaved on a North Carolina plantation, was the first Black doll ― and the sole one for decades.
These are the mostly fond memories of an iconic doll brand: American Girl. The brand, created by writer and philanthropist Pleasant Rowland in 1986, is a line of 18-inch dolls and 15-inch Bitty Babies who portray American youth, predominantly young girls, from different times in history. From Victorian-era trust-fund child Samantha Parkington to their first Asian American “Girl of the Year” doll, Jessica, the $115 dolls come with their own worlds, replete with books, clothes, furniture, video games and occasional movie deals.
The brand, now owned by Mattel, has not only expanded over the years but also has continued to be a mainstay in the memories of middle-class American girls’ childhoods. Gone are the days of us begging our parents for tickets to the premiere of the 2008 film “Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl” or pleading for more time to play Josefina Montova’s game on the American Girl website.
Instead, in the last year— from Ziwe Fumudoh’s late-night skits about the dolls to TikTok influencers dining at the American Girl doll cafe — the AG franchise has reentered the zeitgeist in a whole new way. Millennials and Gen Z women who have grown out of their doll phase have found community in the meme pages taking over Instagram and Twitter. The dolls have become a rallying cry, both for the nostalgia of our childhoods and as a protest against the series of unfortunate historical events we’ve been living through.
These pages — whose account names are often spoofs of doll names, such as @cottagecorekirsten (named for 1854 doll Kirsten Larson) and @juuliealbright (named for 1970s doll Julie Albright) — post content that rate the dolls’ outfits, gauge which American Girl doll would be most likely to do certain things and, most important, have given rise to the “We Need an American Girl Doll” meme format.
Barrett Adair, 27, and her best friend, “C,” who asked not to be identified by name because she prefers to keep a lower profile, are the co-creators of the page @hellicity_merriman, a riff of the 1770s Colonial-era doll, Felicity Merriman.
The “Hellicity Merriman” Instagram page has gained 159,000 followers since it launched in February. Adair works in political digital strategy in Washington, D.C., by day and is a burgeoning meme lord by night. Adair said that American Girl was crucial to the development of her friendship with C five years ago. As they both started a new job for a political campaign, they started taking online quizzes in their downtime.
“One of the funniest ones that we did is we all took a BuzzFeed quiz on what American Girl doll we would be,” Adair said with a laugh. “Then from there, we had to read the Betches article of ‘American Girl Dolls Ranked by Betchiness,’” Adair said. “From that moment on, it was just something that she and I really bonded over. We made every new friend take this quiz; we’ve made the guys we date take this quiz. Our friendship was this shared knowledge of the brand and the characters.”
In 2021, the friends noticed the memes sprawling across social media. That’s when C proposed the idea of creating a page of their own. What was once all fun and games has now generated an unexpected cult following.
“It got picked up in a TikTok that went viral a couple of weeks ago,” Adair said. “So we had hit about 10,000 followers in a steady, pretty organic way. Then that TikTok was published, and it’s just been a snowball effect.”
Adair recalled that upon the reversal of Roe v. Wade, followers said that they initially learned the news from Hellicity Merriman. In protests following the ruling overturning abortion rights, the “We Need an American Girl Doll” meme was seen on posters across Washington, D.C. The same phenomenon occurred days ago, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation and a timely post from the account. One Instagram user, @alexandra.p.g., commented, “WHAT happened in British parliament?” followed by “I cannot believe I’m getting my news from an American girl satire page.”
Felicity Merriman was not Adair’s favorite doll; rather, Samantha, whom Adair described as the quintessential “girlie girl,” stole her heart. Raised by her grandmother in the fictional Mount Bedford, New York, the 1904 Victorian character was an orphan who, although raised in wealth, has no airs about her. After reading the doll’s themed novel “Happy Birthday, Samantha,” 6-year-old Adair had an epiphany.
“I read her birthday book, and Samantha did not have a birthday cake for her 10th birthday party. She had had petit fours,” recalled Adair. “I’m 6. I go up to my mother, it’s my birthday. And I’m like, Mom, I insist on serving petit fours to my guests. My mother, the saint that she was, unflinchingly was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And made them from scratch. I have tried to do that as an adult, and absolutely fucking not.”
She said that the allure of the American Girl Doll brand lies in its hyper-specificity and character-building in comparison to other doll brands. While Barbie played on imagination, American Girl dolls were defined characters with stories outlining their flaws and struggles, from Kit Kittredge’s nosiness to Julie Albright grappling with adjusting to her parents’ divorce. Adair noted that there is space for multiplicity — the glitz, glamor and extravagance of Barbie coupled with empowerment and education — but the key to American Girl’s longevity is relatability.
American Girl is “intensely focused on making a product that is fun to play with but also seemingly building allure around it that is not focused on perfection, idealism and romanticism but rather, to some extent, history, education, imperfection and pure girlhood,” Adair said. “Every girl’s story has some example of some way they did something bad to a friend or family member, but they were humbled in some way. They had to be taught how to do something the right way, grow and change, and they have talents and strengths. As adults, we can still kind of relate to it because we know these girls’ personalities. We relate to having moments of growth and self-reflection, still.”
HuffPost reached out to American Girl for comment regarding the recent emergence of doll-related meme accounts.
“Nostalgia continues to be part of the zeitgeist right now and is driving many of the recent social trends sparked by avid American Girl fans,” Jamie Cygielman, general manager of American Girl, said in a statement. “We also know it’s fun to be reminded of our favorite childhood memories, so we aren’t surprised when our fans — many of whom grew up with us and are now parents themselves — continue to bring American Girl into the cultural conversation.
“This recent trend reminds us of the important role American Girl has played in people’s childhoods and shows that we still hold a special place in the hearts of so many.”
For Lydia B., creator and page manager of @Klit.Klittredge, her favorite doll was none other than Kit Kittredge, an aspiring 10-year-old journalist during the Great Depression.
“She’s the best. Her telling her grandfather that she doesn’t want to live with him, she supported FDR — what a queen!” said Lydia, who works in policy in D.C. and requested HuffPost not use her last name to protect her privacy. “I don’t think it’s that crazy either to think that a girl who was really into journalism, especially with the newly introduced fireside chats at the time, knows about the president.”
Lydia, a 24-year-old who self-describes as “chronically online,” has been posting memes on the internet since age 11, running countless meme accounts over the years. However, none of them have been as successful as Klit Klittredge, which has more than 30,000 followers on Instagram and 46,000 on Twitter. She posted her first American Doll meme in August 2021 after noticing people were talking about the dolls earlier that summer.
“The 2020s feels like a historical era; it feels like we’re living through something big. I think a lot of people are latching on to the idea of what an American Girl who lives in 2020 might be or look like.”
- Lydia B.
“I made a TikTok once that compared American Girl dolls as being a gateway drug to being a radical leftist. That TikTok did really well and actually, the audio got banned because it talked about doing heroin,” Lydia said. “So, that TikTok was only up for about eight hours but got around 30,000 likes. I guess I just woke up one day with the name Klit Klittredge in my head, and I started the account.”
For Lydia, the dolls were a staple of her childhood; she went to sleepovers and birthday parties with the dolls in tow. Her first meme that went viral was in September, when Lydia made a fake infographic from the perspective of the American Girl brand about abortion.
The punchline featured a picture of ’70s-era doll Julie Albright saying “Yeetus that Fetus.” Lydia said that it’s not a coincidence that American Girl dolls have made their comeback during our continuous stream of living through “unprecedented” events.
“The whole gimmick of American Girl is you pick a girl, and she’s living through a historical time period where something important is happening. You create a doll that represents a girl from that era,” Lydia said. “The 2020s feels like a historical era; it feels like we’re living through something big. I think a lot of people are latching on to the idea of what an American Girl who lives in 2020 might be or look like.”
Hailing from central Kentucky, Lydia said members of her Southern Baptist churchgoing community got swept up in the middle-class Americana branding of the franchise. Though the dolls have mobilized a generation of bold, young women speaking up for what they believe in, Lydia said that American Girl as a corporation was merely making money off of a demographic, not inherently having complex conversations regarding diversity, identity or progressive politics.
She said that as the meme pages come into the conversation and appeal to a now-adult base, we’re having more complex conversations about what it meant to have an American Girl doll as a child and what it means to be an American girl today.
“I don’t really think that American Girl as a corporation is going to be the entity that defines what it means to be an American girl,” Lydia said. “I don’t have a lot of faith that they’re going to get with it.”
In 2005, American Girl launched its “I Can” campaign to support the nonprofit Girls Inc., which aimed to inspire girls “to be strong, smart and bold.” According to The New York Times and CBS News, conservative family groups threatened to boycott the brand, claiming it was aiding an organization that supported abortion rights. Lydia’s church participated in the boycott. However, Lydia’s mom still supported the brand, only furthering her daughter’s doll obsession.
“Learning about Addy, Josefina and Kaya, I didn’t really learn that in school,” Lydia said. “There’s one of Addy’s books where she’s talking about going to school, and she doesn’t like the white girls in her class. I remember reading that at like 8 or 9, as a white girl who knew of Black girls in school but didn’t have any Black friends. I was thinking, ‘What do the Black girls at my school think of me and why?’ While she was enslaved, they were pushing some barriers.”
Living in D.C., Lydia attended protests when news leaked in early May of the pending Supreme Court ruling on abortion. She turned one of her memes into a poster, and women of all ages came up to her, asking to take a picture of her sign, she said.
On April Fools’ Day, Lydia posted a fake American Girl press release from the Klit Klittredge account. One of the lines eloquently read, “We know that American girls grow into American teens, but we know the values — social issues, identity, and activism — that young people learn from their American Girl dolls last a lifetime.”
“I meant that as I wrote it, and I believe it to be true about my account as well,” Lydia said. “That we hold these values and it changes as we get older. We have a more complex understanding of these values and what they mean for us in our country and, and what it means to be an American girl.”
Adair credits the resurgence of American Girl to good timing. She describes Hellicity Merriman’s audience as “the girls,” not specific to gender but rather “anyone, like with the energy of a capital G girl.” Following the Roe v. Wade ruling, now more than ever, people are confronting what it means to be an American Girl, Adair said.
“My friend and I are very political and made the choice really early on — because we didn’t care about growing the account, necessarily — to be as explicitly political as possible on the account and grew an audience that responded well to that,” she said. “I’ve never been more glad to be making something that people like to look at and give people some really apt way to describe how they’re feeling, with a little bit of humor and a little bit of camaraderie with their generation and the generation before them. I’m happy that we have this very appropriately silly little thing to commiserate over together.”
And may the spirit of the dolls live on.