As a toy industry professional who also has a love of history, I have long been fascinated by American Girls and their use of historic backstories to appeal to girls. One part toy and one part historical fiction, these dolls have created legions of followers and maybe even produced a few history professors.
The dolls have taken on heavy subjects like slavery and the depression without sugar coating them. The characters have shown believable strength in facing down the challenges of their times. What was surprising, at least at the time, was that a product segment known for fantasy and whimsy was just as popularly delivering pain and suffering.
That was why I was drawn to a story in The Atlantic by Amy Schiller entitled: “American Girls Aren’t Radical Anymore.” Schiller faultsMattel for moving American Girl away from her gritty roots and towards a doll with a safer message.
Here is how Schiller puts it: “With a greater focus on appearance, increasingly mild character development, and innocuous political topics, a former character-building toy has become more like a stylish accessory.” She closes her article with these words: “American Girl once provided a point of entry for girls who have matured into thoughtful, critical, empowered citizens. Now the company's identity feels as smooth, unthreatening and empty as the dolls on their shelves.”
The original American Girl dolls were the brainchild of Pleasant T. Rowland whose company, the Pleasant Company, rolled out her original three dolls Kirsten, Samantha and Felicity in 1986. I don’t know if it was apocryphal but there was a story making the rounds in the late 80’s that Rowland was at a trade show and saw a company that had “knocked off” her dolls. She went into their booth and tore them off the walls. Whether true or not, she sounds like one of the characters in her books.
She sold the company to Mattel in 1998 and since that time, Mattel has retired the three original characters. According to Schiller, the emphasis has now moved from these historically themed dolls to
Business is, however, business and Mattel has to ultimately make hard decisions. If that means softening the message to attract more consumers than that is what they have to do. Still it seems on one hand to be a shame for the line and the moms and older sisters who loved those original gritty characters; on the other hand, what an opportunity for a new Pleasant Rowland to make a mark.