American Girl: Creepy or Cool?
January 9, 2006 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Can someone explain the American Girl phenomenon? Are they creepy or cool?

I first heard of the dolls on an episode of This American Life. For those similarly in the dark: fast facts, the Wikipedia article, and the inevitable protest.
posted by hendrixson to Shopping (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My only exposure to them has been from the stuff we sell at my bookstore, but if I had children I'd much rather them play with American Girl dolls than Bratz. Many of the characters have historical stories. Apparently there were accusations of selling out the American Girl ideals a few years ago though.
posted by drezdn at 11:39 AM on January 9, 2006

I haven't heard about it until now, but looking at their site, with movies, games, dolls and stories, it reminds of the Saint Seiya (The Zodiac Knights) phenomenon a few years ago. Another complete marketing scheme around a set of characters, this time around for girls.
posted by nkyad at 11:39 AM on January 9, 2006

I had American Girl dolls when I was a kid, 10+ years ago. I don't have kids, so I haven't really kept up with it, but back then they were just nice, high-quality dolls with different clothes and accessories you could purchase. All of the dolls were meant to be historically accurate and had matching books and stories to educate girls about the different eras. For example, I had Samantha, who was the Victorian doll, and Kiersten, who was the Swedish prairie-girl immigrant doll. My sister had Felicity, the 1700s-era doll, and Molly, the WW2 doll.

The dolls had overpriced fancy furniture, clothes, accessories, stories, and all kinds of things. You could buy matching outfits for yourself and the dolls. It's definitely not a "new" fad, by any means, although they seem to be marketing it towards hipper kids nowadays. When I had them, they were pretty much just for nerdy history buffs whose parents didn't mind spending a ton of money on a doll.
posted by booknerd at 11:45 AM on January 9, 2006

You can read about the building of the brand in the generally interesting book Trading Up, by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske, a collection of case studies illustrating various methods for introducing notions of luxury into areas where it previously didn't exist, and thereby getting people to pay more for what they were used to paying less for. (You would think this book would be available in some kind of special limited-circulation leather-bound edition but in fact the link takes you to a discount price...)
posted by escabeche at 11:48 AM on January 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

I remember these as well. My parents never bought me one because they were ridiculously expensive as were all of the accessories I was sure to want, but I recall poring over the American Girls catalog reading all of the girls' stories. The whole point, I think, was to learn the history and culture of these girls and their families. It never struck me as particularly hip, though, just interesting.
posted by catfood at 11:49 AM on January 9, 2006

They've been around for quite a while. I had some of the books as a kid, but never the dolls. Creepy or cool? A little bit of both, I think. The cool part is the idea of having girl characters from different parts of history. The creepy part is the consumerism overkill. But hey, they are American girls, after all.
posted by lampoil at 11:51 AM on January 9, 2006

My boyfriend's little niece is CRAZY about American Girl dolls. I remember my kid sister getting one when she was about 9 or 10 and being thrilled about it, I didn't really get it, but then again, I never really liked dolls very much. I think the fact that they're pretty (have nice hair and clothes) and are expensive makes them interesting to most young & tween girls.

The aforementioned niece is pretty over-the-top with her American Girl thang, though. Last year, she travelled with her mother to Chicago to go to the 'og' Ameridan Girl store. My boyfriend and I bought her a doll one year for Christmas (it was not regular-doll priced! Sheebus!) and we still get little books and club invitations in the mail.

This holiday, when we were visiting with her, she turned to me at breakfast and said "not only am I a fan of American Girl, I'm also a member of their preferred club!" I thought that was pretty adorable. But it says to me that it's all about the marketing, baybee. They've managed to turn it into a lifestyle thing for little girls.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2006

One of my daughters was into them, briefly, as a result of peer pressure. The kids who liked them had parents who wanted to "get the best" toys for their kids, while also enjoying the "educational" benefit (the books that supposedly teach history of the period the doll is from).

Exclusivity was important for these folks, I think. Also, once a kid would get one, they could count on relatives supplying the accessories for that doll as holiday presents. Since there were huge lines of accessories, this cycle would go on for years! These girls would have the complete wardrobe, a closet, the schoolhouse, etc.

My daughter tired of the preciousness of the dolls and went back to Barbie, who she could mutiliate in all kinds of fun ways.
posted by jasper411 at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2006

They sell matching outfits for the girls and dolls. That's a bit creepy.
posted by smackfu at 12:20 PM on January 9, 2006

Forgot to mention... the other interesting thing is that the historical backstory is kind of a lock-in. You can't put Colonial era clothing on your doll who's from the 19th century, can you? It just won't match. So you need to buy another doll once you exhaust all the accessories for your first doll.
posted by smackfu at 12:22 PM on January 9, 2006

They even sell customized dolls that look like whatever little girl orders one. That's a bit creepy.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:23 PM on January 9, 2006

It's a neat idea, but I personally find 'realistic' dolls to be sixteen different kinds of heeby. Behind those beady glass eyes is a plan to kill us in our sleep.
posted by cmyk at 12:25 PM on January 9, 2006

We got one as a hand-me-down. You can easily find AG-sized clothing at craft shows and the like. (As a father of a little girl, I can tell you most 'doll clothes' come in three sizes: 'Barbie', 'Doll', and 'American Girl', in order of size.) There's no need to drop mega bucks to keep these dolls in clothes.

More on topic: Another draw is that you can often order dolls that (superficially) resemble the little girls. The matching outfits tend to build on this. :)
posted by unixrat at 12:27 PM on January 9, 2006

You can't put Colonial era clothing on your doll who's from the 19th century, can you? It just won't match.

But, in AG's defense, it will fit. All the dolls are the same size.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:33 PM on January 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

I was just barely in the age range when American Girl began and I thought it was cool. But then, I was really into history, and I loved the idea of being able to have the historic outfits because they were historic. However, we were poor and I grew up, so I never got past the books and my imagination. If it makes other little girls feel comfortable with history, though, I'll still vote cool.
posted by dame at 12:35 PM on January 9, 2006

My little nieces (age 8 and 5) are crazy about American Girls. The dolls themselves are alright, and the large amount of accessories mean they can customize them the way they like. The books that go with the dolls let them learn about girls growing up in different periods in history (for example, 1776 colonial America), including perspectives from Native American and Hispanic immigrant girls. So far, this is "cool".

The American Girl store though, is "creepy". It is overrun with young girls begging their haggered parents to buy them American Girls Dolls, go to the American Grils Stage Show, eat in the American Girls Cafe, etc.
posted by falconred at 12:37 PM on January 9, 2006

On the cool site, the Frautschi family (owners of American Girl before it was sold off to Mattel) have contributed a lot to Wisconsin -- in particular they donated $200m to launch the Overture Center for the Arts here in Madison, and gave the beautiful parcel of lakeshore now known as Frautschi Point to the University of Wisconsin Foundation. There's a very cool section of restored prairie that's worth walking up to if you're in town.
posted by escabeche at 12:43 PM on January 9, 2006

The most remarkable thing about them is that they are, in fact, raised on promises. Oh yeah. Allright.
posted by JekPorkins at 12:47 PM on January 9, 2006

They sell matching outfits for the girls and dolls. That's a bit creepy.

Barbie did/does this too. What's creepier is that the AG catalogs I looked at as a kid had matching mother/daughter dresses that matched the doll dresses.

My parents could never afford them either, so my sister and I just spent our time "window shopping" and planning how we'd parlay our meager allowance into a doll (Molly was the choice, iirc). I think they're cool, but I don't think some of the newer AG lines are so cool, nor would I drop the money on my own girls. MAYBE if they didn't mind homemade clothes/accessories, as that'd be a good excuse for them to learn sewing, woodworking, FIMO usage, etc.
posted by artifarce at 12:48 PM on January 9, 2006

I know a lot of folks that work for AG here in Madison, and it's a big employer here in town (as far as I know).

My daughter, who's 3, has just started getting into them (seeing as they have a relatively new Bitty Babies line). She absolutely adores the books, gets really into the matching clothing, and for her birthday, we all went down to Chicago and ate at the American Girl Cafe.

Holy crap, that place was a completely different world. There were tourists, just like us, who were maybe in for the Christmas season (it being December 17th at the time), but then there were the richy-rich families. You could just tell, by the way they dressed, that they were in from some ultra-posh suburb, and Driver had the Town Car double-parked outside waiting for them to finish up the day's shopping.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:54 PM on January 9, 2006

As a woman named Felicity, I find it interesting that more strangers (shop clerks, bank tellers, customer service reps) associate my name with the American Girls dolls than with the eponymous television show from a few years back. (Clearly AG has better market penetration than the WB.) Everyone wants to know if I had a Felicity doll when I was growing up, and they're always disappointed when I tell them "No."
posted by junkbox at 1:13 PM on January 9, 2006

Hah! Felicity, American Girl dolls were just starting out when I was about 12 or so, and so even though I was past my "dolls phase" my parents bought me the Molly doll. I did think it was pretty cool that there was a doll with my name, and that had brown hair and blue eyes just like me to boot. But I was always disappointed that "Molly" was the most modern of the dolls. The other ones all had clothes and stories that were so much cooler! (I especially envied Samantha's Victorian outfits.) But I didn't ever consider buying any of the other dolls' outfits, even though they would have fit, so I guess American Girls does a pretty amazing job with branding each doll as an individual by tying it in with a particular historical period.

As an adult, do I think they're cool or creepy? Well, every toy company tries to create a whole world that encourages kids to buy more of their toys, and I'd sure as hell rather have little girls obsessed with historically accurate WWII-era costume than clammoring for Bratz. Now those things creep me right out.
posted by MsMolly at 1:34 PM on January 9, 2006

My daughter, 5 years old, has just gotten into the books. We picked up a few at a swap meet in the fall, and they're the first chapter books she's taken to. I only just became aware of the doll phenomenon. I'm impressed with the stories. They get in a lot of historical detail but are accessible to a little kid. The dolls and merchandising seems creepy, but what doesn't get mershed to death these days? I had no idea that the dolls came first.
posted by bendybendy at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2006

One cool thing is that the stores have collectibles for that city -- in doll sizes. So in the NY one, you can get a green foam Liberty crown that's 3 inches wide. It is very cute. I wonder what they have for Chicago.

(If you can't tell, I was also dragged to one of these stores with my nieces.)
posted by smackfu at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2006

I'm scared of the America Girl store. I had the unfortunate misfortune of jumping on a tourist trolly here in Chicago thinking that I wouldn't have to wait for the bus anymore. The drivers dumbest comment was that America Girl was were little girl's learn to shop. I can't tell if he was serious or not.
posted by corpse at 2:48 PM on January 9, 2006

They're cool, if you're into dolls...which I never really was. I know I read some of the books, and I remember looking at the catalogs and eventually realizing the whole scheme was ridiculous (even if Samantha did have the prettiest outfits....).

To me the creepy thing is that they seem to be such a class divider...thanotopsis makes a good point. I've never been to the store, but even looking at the catalogs 10+ years ago, I could tell it was kind of a have/have-not sort of toy. Certainly not for the poor or kids of parents with frugal spending habits.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 3:26 PM on January 9, 2006

I have to admit I have never heard of them before, but thanks to your links I am currently listening to the This American Life show. I surfed the sites you linked to and from what I see, it looks like a fairly positive trend for girls - dolls that don't encourage the girls to act like adults/mothers. I, of course, really like American Girl's controversial affiliation with Girls, Inc. I can't believe how expensive they are though, yikes!
posted by arcticwoman at 3:41 PM on January 9, 2006

I had one doll as a kid (Molly). Of course, this was way before they became huge (when I got Molly there were just the three girls. I was still somewhat into them when Felicity and Addy came out, but nothing past that).

We never got any of the expensive accessories, though. My mom and grandma mostly made clothes for Molly (and a couple matching outfits for me -- I had a red plaid outfit based on one in the catalog and for Halloween once I followed Molly's lead from the books and we both dressed as hula dancers).

A friend of mine had two of the dolls and my third grade teacher bought one of the dolls and a TON of accessories for his own kids, but I don't remember them being super-trendy. Maybe that came later with the stores and such.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:11 PM on January 9, 2006

I think they're pretty cool now, and when I was a kid, I was convinced they were the coolest shit ever.

They all have matching books -- I think five apiece, and they're all parallel (the second book would always be about X, the third about Y). I collected them all through Josefina's introduction.

Whenever I got a catalog, I pored over it for hours. I adored all of their products. I never had a doll, but I loved reading those catalogs. I could buy a St. Lucia's wreath like Kristen! Or Felicity's sampler! Or Molly's Wizard of Oz book!

And then they added another section: dolls that look like you. Well, that was just the ultimate in hot shit when I was seven. You could buy skating outfits, school setups, barbecues, anything. I never had a doll, but I spent hours planning which one I'd get and which packs I needed.

I don't get catalogs anymore, but I'd probably still look at every page if I did (despite being 19 now). I think the girls are good role models, although the premises can be a little cheesy, and the company's obviously in it for profit. I've never been to the AG stores, which apparently can be more blatantly capitalistic.
posted by booksandlibretti at 5:26 PM on January 9, 2006

I had these from when I was about 5 or 6 to when I was... well, I played with these way longer than I probably should have. That was mostly because I made my own clothes and accessories from scraps, old clothes, random stuff around the house, etc. My grandmother bought me most of the dolls and accessories for them, but I liked playing with my own things most. I did have the doll sized horse, though. that was freaking awesome. I would set up complicated houses made out of the bunk bed frame I had for them. I never sewed anything, but I hoarded pretty ribbon and bits of fabric for years. I still have a massive box of fabric left over from my doll years. I loved the books when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade. Anyway, my point is that the dolls can be enjoyed without the expensive accessories. It actually helped me learn to see potential in "trash" and how to create cool stuff from junk. The dolls are well made, and they are certainly better than barbie as far as body image. They look like 11 year old girls, not women.
posted by MadamM at 5:48 PM on January 9, 2006

I read the books as a kid, but the dolls were too expensive. The stories, however, gave a nice Little House on the Prarie-esque insight into what it would be like to be a girl in a different time period. They seemed to not always pick white girls either.

But I've been to the store in Chicago and it was like an expensive fantasy. American Girl EVERYTHING was there... and the kids could "shop" by grabbing cards (sort of like you do at a normal store for something big that needs to be brought to the register from "out back") -- then the parents are given the cards. The parents don't know what they're buying. Smart for American Girl, shitty for parents.
posted by k8t at 6:14 PM on January 9, 2006

You want creepy? This be the creepy doll.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:21 PM on January 9, 2006

I'm Australian, but my younger sister was born while we lived in the US (1990). Her American godmother gave her the set of five books as a present, and then followed it up with the Kirsten doll (presumably her favorite) and later a cookbook and some clothes/a wardrobe. I remember her cooking a swedish St Lucia Day meal from the cookbook and so on. I read all the books, and to me they are an indication of how much more interested Americans are in their own history than Australians.
posted by jacalata at 6:25 PM on January 9, 2006

I think the dolls and the books are cool. There are craft books and cookbooks and stories about the girls, and there are stories written at different reading levels. The books are among the most popular books at the K-2 and 3-4 libraries I volunteer at, and they're very good. They teach a little bit about the different eras in US history, without sounding like a textbook. My teenager still likes to look at the catalogs, even though she never had an AG doll. She did have a bunch of the books though, and we've donated many of them to the libraries, as her little brother isn't likely to read them.

I think the AG stores are creepy. Nothing like teaching little girls that spending money is the way to happiness. The My Twinn dolls are the annoying ones -- those are the ones that you can order to match your child -- assuming your child has the 'right' color eyes. Bratz dolls are just plain icky.
posted by jlkr at 6:44 PM on January 9, 2006

IMO, the best thing about these dolls is that they are GIRLS, and not mini-women. The historical stories are a great learning experience, something not to be discounted.

I agree that the stores are scary and that a haves/have nots thing develops - but I think you have to compare these to what else is available in the marketplace... Barbies have famously impossible figures, the Bratz girls have oversized heads and tons of makeup, etc.

I have two nieces, and the only dolls I like for them are the AG dolls and the Groovy Girls (which are much less expensive !) I have to be in favor of anything that supports a healthy body image, aloows girls to be children, and encourages them to read and gain an insight into history.
posted by AuntLisa at 12:05 PM on January 10, 2006

Neither. (Creepy nor cool.)

I had a couple of the dolls and read the books about 15 years ago. At the time, I just thought they were fun, interesting and informative, and it never went much further than that. I do agree, though, I'd much prefer my daughters play with dolls like this, that have a history, have little girl faces and little girl bodies, etc.
posted by Amizu at 2:14 PM on January 10, 2006

I was way past the doll stage (19 or 20) when AG dolls first came out and wanted one. So I'd vote for creepy cool.
posted by deborah at 10:16 PM on January 10, 2006

Second AuntLisa. These are girls. It's better that girls identify with girls instead of the ridiculous Barbie lifestyle and enhanced anatomy.

But. Another point is that American Girl, before they were part of Mattel, developed a relationship with Girls, Inc., a girl-empowerment foundation -- until a couple of weeks ago. Under heavy pressure from conservative interests, which were concerned about Girls Inc.'s tolerance for non-traditional families and whatnot, Mattel has decided not to renew the Girls Inc. relationship. So I wish I could support them, but this cave-in means I can't.
posted by dhartung at 12:29 AM on January 11, 2006

There are a lot of adult collectors of American Girl dolls, some of whom started collecting waaaaaay past the target age, and some of whom continued to play with the dolls throughout their teens (often in secret as it was uncool for a teen to play with dolls) and into adulthood.

posted by TaffyCheerful at 8:37 AM on April 14, 2006

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