When Greta Gerwig’s (“Little Women”) “Barbie” came out, I wanted to love it. I saw endless social media and online praise for the movie, countless women moved to tears by America Ferrera (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) and her monologue, and even encountered many real-life conversations with lovers of Barbie and her pink world. Yet, I was never able to fully resonate with the film. Amid a clouded haze of glitter and hot pink, I came to the realization that, to me, Barbie was not synonymous with girlhood because I had never really played with the dolls growing up. Sure, I owned a Barbie camper and occasionally forced my Ken doll to ride on top of it while Barbie and her girlfriends hung out inside, but the unifying Barbie experiences shown in the movie — like Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, “Ghostbusters”) or Barbie’s Dreamhouse — were not the playtimes that defined my childhood. Instead, my Barbie was her modestly dressed, chubbier and overpriced alternative: the American Girl Doll.
The historical American Girl dolls are traditionally 18-inch dolls that portray fictional young girls during significant cultural or political periods in American history. These dolls come clad in historically accurate outfits and have dozens of timely accessories and clothing pieces that can be bought to further enhance the playtime experience. But, beyond their more commercial aspects, each doll also comes with a story. Spread out over a standard six-book series, each girl has an arc of self-discovery and resilience in the face of both historical and everyday issues. These stories made me fall in love with American Girl dolls, and it has had a long-lasting effect on who I am today.
I first discovered Molly McIntire when I was in the first grade. “Meet Molly: An American Girl” is a relatively thin and unassuming beige book. Yet, this introduction to Molly — a spirited, stubborn, glasses-wearing 9-year-old girl in 1944 who struggles to understand war and arithmetic — utterly captivated me. Admittedly, Molly was my first introduction to World War II and, over the consequential course of the next five Molly adventures, I became immersed into an era of American history I had never before encountered. Rationing, refugees, veterans — complex concepts for young children are seen through the lens of a fellow young girl making her way through a confusing world.
I was hooked. In the following months, I read every American Girl-branded book I could get my hands on. Through Julie Albright’s books, I learned about gender inequality and Title IX, Addy Walker’s story taught me about slavery and the Underground Railroad, Kaya’s about the traditions of the Nez Perce tribe and Kirsten Larson’s the struggles of 19th-century immigrants and pioneers. Not only did these books make American history digestible for a young audience, they made it real.
The key to the success of the American Girl stories is their achievement in appealing to the ordinary — the American Girls are not “chosen ones,” they do not embark on a literary hero’s journey or perform any wildly remarkable deeds. Rather, they are normal American girls, navigating the complexities of life. It is in this equalizing front that the American Girl dolls, and the characters that they represent, become a unifying face for girlhood. Their stories, as told through their books, encourage young girls to become strong in the face of adversity, to be kind and courageous and never let their gender define or limit their place in the world. As American Girl outlines on their website, “Bringing out the joy of girlhood is at the heart of everything we do. Through adventurous stories and imaginative play, we give girls the chance to discover who they are—and who they’re meant to be.”
The American Girl books provide adolescent girls with the reassurance that their problems are not small, that they are not unique in their struggles and that generations of women before them have faced the same plights. They encourage girls to engage critically and thoughtfully with the past, to consider a wide range of backgrounds and histories, and to discover what it means to be American.
As I reflect on these books and the impact that they have had on me, I find that they are an avenue to empowerment for young girls. It is so rare to see a product that is unapologetically girlish and sees this not as a weakness or limiting factor but solely as a strength. It is through Molly, Addy, Julie, Kirsten and more that I learned early to be a feminist. They taught me to value empathy, intelligence, kindness, bravery and confidence as a young girl. Through the stories of these dolls, I was encouraged to seek knowledge and learn from others, to value diversity and inclusion in my understanding of America, and to actively engage with the past in order to create my future.
American Girl books go beyond the historical; the contemporary “Girl of the Year” novels follow modern girls through modern events and problems, while continually promoting the same messages and lessons as their historical counterparts. The infamous American Girl puberty guidebook, “The Care and Keeping of You,” provides adolescent girls with all the awkward and embarrassing answers to the typically taboo questions about their bodies as they transition from childhood to adolescence. While it can be easy to laugh off these topics or downplay their importance, American Girl has never shied away from creating and embracing female spaces. These books continue to uphold a unique common ground for girls (and women) to understand both themselves and each other. Within the realm of American Girl, a girl can see herself in others, she can uniquely connect with the past while applying its lessons to the present and she can ultimately be or do anything she desires.
American Girl will always hold a special place in my heart. While the dolls are the face of the company, the core message of American Girl is where their true value lies. It is the stories behind the dolls, the histories of American girls in the past, present and future, that have guided me and generations of girls alike, leaving such a lasting impact on our lives.
Daily Arts Writer Kathryn Hemmila can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.