Most girls born after 1986 understand the inescapable allure of the American Girl franchise. Perhaps you found them through the many books that have been published through the American Girl company. Even if you didn’t own any American Girl dolls, you probably knew a classmate who did. The collection originally focused on fictional girls, all nine or ten years old, living in various historical eras from 1764 to the 1970s. Their backgrounds spanned everything from early Nez Perce culture to the Civil War, from prairie life in 1854 Minnesota to World War II. The core group – Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly – were all released in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.
Pleasant Rowland began the American Girl company in 1985 to introduce girls entering their preteen years to history. The line was hailed as the alternative doll to Barbie and a refreshing break from what many considered to be the excess of the 1980s. In 1998, though, the Pleasant Company was sold to Mattel. This brought about several changes, not all of them welcome. A culture of happy parents suddenly became worried about development of consumerism that the new American Girl line seemed to encourage. According to the Washington Post, many of today’s adult fans, most of whom came of age with the original American Girls in 1986-1997, decry the new line as a “dreadful change.”
The question becomes then, what are these changes and are they as dreadful as they might seem? The only way to know for sure is to examine American Girl as it once was, as it is now, and what it is becoming. Businesses should be aware of what American Girl has done correctly in its time that made it such a marketing phenomenon. They also need to know what the franchise might be doing wrong. Whether or not a business caters to girls and women or sells dolls, there is plenty to learn from this particular conglomerate.
What American Girl Did and Is Doing Right
Let’s examine American Girl’s positive choices first. Many of these are found in the earliest incarnation of the line. Back then, there were only five girls representing five historical eras. The idea behind American Girls was not for modern readers and doll collectors to find a historical counterpart that was a replica of themselves. Instead, because the core group was small and fairly limited in representation, girls needed to empathize with the protagonists. Despite different historical circumstances, young girls could relate to the difficulties of being a girl during that particular period. The purpose of the line then, critic Alexandra Petri writes, was to “see yourself in history” and “engage with the biggest pieces of the past.”
If this is true, it’s one of the best choices American Girl made. Pleasant Rowland and her compatriots wanted girls to stretch their imaginations, to think beyond their contemporary worlds. Petri describes Kirsten’s stories in particular as “adventure itself…she has to tangle with winter and rough conditions[…and] at one point in her story, someone dies of cholera.” It should be noted the cholera death happens in the first of six books, Meet Kirsten, and the victim is the protagonist’s best friend.
Other American Girls go through harsh realities, too. Felicity’s relationship with best friend Elizabeth travels a rocky road because Elizabeth’s family is loyal to England, while Felicity is raised as a Patriot. Samantha’s Irish immigrant friend Nellie is orphaned and sent to a cold institution, where she is worked to the bone and threatened with separation from her little sisters. Addy begins her story in slavery and is forced to eat worms from tobacco plants because she neglected to pluck them. The scene is written appropriately for the demographic, but history is filled with disturbing scenarios such as these. The stories ask girls to exhibit new levels of empathy and confront history’s grit.
Finally, American Girl has made great positive choices in their expansion of the historical collection since 1998. In the past 16 years, they have added a Jewish girl, a free African-American, a Native American, and a Latina. The expansion gives girls more characters with which to identify. Yet, American Girl has also made some negative choices we should examine.
What American Girl Is Doing Wrong
Despite its positive choices, many of today’s modern critics malign American Girl for its recent revamp. For example, critics are angry that the new BeForever line has archived many dolls. These include the collection’s only two black characters, Addy and Cecile. Critics worry this move leaves black American Girl fans and their parents and teachers feeling cheated. Additionally, despite the line’s rather new diversity, critics continue to site the total lack of certain minority groups. The line’s only Asian doll, Ivy Ling, is simply a sidekick to Julie, a 1970s era white girl. Ivy Ling is never a full-fledged character. Instead, she was part of a short-lived Best Friends line. Critics say this is akin to telling Asian girls their stories aren’t important. The fact that Asian fans are posting the same criticisms to the American Girl company but getting no response does not help.
The lack of racial diversity is not American Girl’s only current problem. The company has failed to represent dolls with differences and disabilities as well. Even after reader Melissa Shang posed the question of why these types of girls are underrepresented, American Girl did not respond. The only two characters with disabilities in the entire collection – Josie, who uses a wheelchair, and Joy, who is deaf – are only main characters’ friends. They do not receive their own dolls or stories.
Diversity, or lack thereof, is not the main reason adults, parents, and teachers are crying foul on the new American Girls collection, though. To writers like Alexandra Petri, the real problem is the collection has become too personalized and dare we say, pretty. The company’s current focus seems to be on contemporary girls, as they release a new Girl of the Year each January. In contrast to their historical counterparts, these ten-year-olds face problems like:
· Dissolution of the arts program
· Reading problems which are easily solved within two books
· Getting or not getting coveted spots on sports teams or in dance camps
While these are legitimate problems for the collection’s demographic, they are by no means the adventures the original historical girls faced. In fact, Washington Post cites critics who describe the contemporary girls as all “comfortable, privileged, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems,” with all their “rough edges sanded and [real dangers] excluded.” The worry is that these girls so resemble contemporary life, they will make today’s young girls unaware of and unable to deal with the world around them.
What Can Businesses Learn?
Whether or not a business sells books and dolls or is as big as American Girl, they can all learn something from the line’s triumphs and mistakes. In general, businesses should keep in mind:
· Appeal to the new and exciting. American Girl works because it stretches the imagination and lets girls be the heroes and adventurers.
· Personalize, but don’t pick and choose. American Girl’s contemporary collection is suffering because it diversifies in some areas, not others. If you personalize your item, try to give as many choices as possible.
· Address real issues instead of fluff. Contemporary American girls do face contemporary problems, but they may be too sanitized for the current demographic. Do not trivialize the problems you’re trying to solve, or promise to fix them instantly.
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