I grew up with American Girl. I received Kirsten, the pioneer doll, for Christmas when I was 8 years old. She now sits on a special shelf in my house, surrounded by various pieces of her collection. My younger sister still has her World War II era doll, Molly. My grandma sewed clothes for our dolls, and we collected accessories over years of birthdays and Christmases. My friends and I used to sit on benches on the playground during recess to read the American Girl catalog to each other. We were among American Girl’s early fans, back when the company was owned by a teacher and only sold dolls with historical stories. A lot has changed since then and now I love and hate American Girl dolls.
In 1998, Mattel purchased American Girl. Since then, the company has retired many of its historical dolls (including mine and my sister’s dolls) and pushed modern and look-a-like dolls. With its sales of both American Girl dolls and Barbie dolls, Mattel has a corner on the doll market.
Despite high sales figures, American Girl has managed to disappoint many of its older fans with its gradual sidelining of its historical doll line. The historical dolls and the lessons they taught through books and hands-on toys were what made American Girl unique and somewhat justified the high price tags. The company took away dolls that taught about the “greatest generation,” the American Revolution, or pioneer life and began selling tiny spa play sets and doll hair salon chairs.
While American Girl still has a large line of historical characters, I understood my mom’s disappointment after she looked through a recent catalog. “They used to have page after page of accessories and clothes for each of the historical dolls,” she said. “Now they only have about two pages for each character.” The historical characters definitely have fewer accessories than they used to.
Also, at the rate American Girl is retiring historical dolls, anyone who purchases one these days has no assurance she will be able to buy accessories to add to that doll’s collection over the years; your doll could be put out to pasture at any time.
Dejected fans have taken some of these changes personally, and they look down on the modern dolls, which some people refer to as overpriced, oversized Barbies. To be fair, American Girl wouldn’t hawk this stuff if it didn’t sell. Other writers have pointed out that perhaps we get the “dolls we deserve.”
My husband, who grew up in a family with mostly boys, was initially baffled by the cult-like fanaticism surrounding American Girl and the emotional attachment many fans have. My husband can’t name any toys targeted at boys that have a similar emotional influence; not even Legos, Transformers, or Marvel or DC super heroes. Finally, he compared it to professional football.
I was tempted to walk away from American Girl because it had strayed from its original unique, educational appeal, but now I’m a mother of two girls. My oldest daughter is in elementary school, the prime target age for many of the dolls populating the toy market. She does own a look-alike American Girl doll, a gift from grandparents. She also has her eyes on Josefina, the Hispanic historical doll, who she plans to purchase with Christmas and birthday money from other grandparents. (I’ve noticed a similar trend among many of my daughter’s friends: the grandparents are often the ones purchasing these dolls we otherwise might not be able to afford.) My younger preschool-aged daughter is eyeing American Girl’s Bitty Baby collection, the doll line for younger fans.
Generally, the world of girls’ toys is a jungle. It’s a challenge to navigate big-box stores with aisles of princess bling, bins full of pink trinkets and pink everything, and shelves lined with sexual-looking dolls who look like they stepped out of the movie Mean Girls. Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter looks in depth at these issues, and she also has some thoughts on American Girl, including how expensive the products are.
I started to notice that, while I am disappointed by the way Mattel has jettisoned part of my childhood, American Girl remains one of the better, more wholesome options among girls’ toys. (We are also fans of the slightly controversial Lego Friends, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
What changed things for me was a visit last spring to the American Girl store near our home in suburban St. Louis. We were in the area and stopped in to look. I came away with a few thoughts.
Yes, American Girl has done some things I don’t like:
– Discontinuing several of the historical dolls.
– Emphasizing the modern and look-alike dolls, whose stories about saving the school arts program or succeeding in dance school are fine but pale in comparison to the historical characters’ stories that addressed child labor, slavery, and cholera outbreaks.
– Adding froofy things like spa sets for dolls. I’m not a girly girl and I don’t care for dolls that are excessively girly girl either.
Still, I feel better about my daughters’ interest in these dolls compared to other toys:
– American Girl produces quality products. Friends who have purchased knock-off brand dolls from big-box stores have found that the dolls and accessories don’t hold up as well. Off-brand dolls’ hair is easily snarled, and accessories are made more of plastic rather than durable metal or wood. While in the American Girl store, I pushed a doll stroller on display in their Bitty Baby line for younger girls. It had a sturdy metal frame and rubber tires, and it handled like a real stroller. I still pick up cute accessory sets from Target to pair with my daughter’s American Girl doll, but the extra money for the American Girl brand might be well spent if it means the products will last for years. But all within reason. We’re not getting that $500 bakery play set.
– Despite hefty price tags that place American Girl products solidly within the realm of middle class and upper class family budgets, some of their products remain accessible even to girls whose families can’t afford the dolls. I understand the concerns about promoting values, self esteem, and wholesome toys for girls while engaging in unabashed consumerism. Still, some of their products are available free or low cost. First, there are many books, along with several movies. Our public library stocks nearly all the books, from stories about the historical and modern characters to self-help and nonfiction books for girls, and we’ve picked up dozens of books, and even some magnetic doll play sets, at garage sales. Second, American Girl’s website offers hours of free games and kid-friendly features. Their website has been a nice step up for my daughter from more “babyish” websites like Nick Jr. or Disney Jr.
– American Girl’s customer service is top notch. Yes, there are stories about people who took an off-brand doll to an American Girl store and employees would not style the hair. It’s gutsy to seek services for an off-brand doll. But if you’re dealing solely with American Girl products, the employees are helpful and friendly and seek to provide a special experience. A few years ago when American Girl announced they were retiring my sister’s doll (grumble, grumble), my sister asked for a few final items to add to her doll’s collection for Christmas. American Girl’s website said a certain outfit was sold out, but I called the company to see if they might have a few left. An employee immediately found the outfit at the Los Angeles store, took my payment and mailing information, and the package was on my front porch within a few business days. We’ve also had pleasant experiences in the American Girl store, where employees have greeted my girls with stickers and free simple craft projects.
– Most important to me, American Girl remains a wholesome alternative to many other girls’ toys on the market. I do not care for dolls like Monster High, Bratz, or similar dolls who exude attitude and promote negative female stereotypes. These dolls don’t celebrate childhood but rather glamorize the idea of girls acting older in all the wrong ways. I struggle to explain to my daughter why we don’t allow her to own Monster High dolls when many of her peers have them. How do you tell a second grader that a doll is inappropriate because it is overly sexualized? I don’t care for the overdone eye makeup and pouty lips, midriff-baring shirts, short skirts, and platform boots. I also don’t want my girls to idealize characters whose primary interests are shopping, primping, and chasing boys.
Ironically, Monster High and American Girl are both owned by Mattel. But American Girl dolls look like real girls with regular bodies, and no one wears trashy clothes or promotes Mean Girls behavior. American Girl teaches character lessons and self esteem. Its movie dealing with bullying, Chrissa Stands Strong, is especially well done and is so true to life that it can be difficult to watch, in a good way. Chrissa is a great role model, as are all the other American Girls.
So it is best to take American Girl with a grain of salt. It is a corporation with money to make. It is not meant to be a museum dedicated to my childhood. It celebrates girls being girls in positive ways, and I respect that in a toy market that is crowded with less-wholesome products. I’ve lost some of my childhood sense of enchantment with the company, but it still has my confidence as a mother, if not always the contents of my wallet.
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Category: Family Finances
Tags: American Girl