I’m not sure how I managed to avoid the American Girl doll phenomenon for so long. I have one son, the Mathemagician, and during his childhood mostly had to contend with Nintendos and Mario Brothers. (Dolls and figurines might have been a blessed reprieve from that incessant video-game music.) The Little Admiral hadn’t pulled us into the AG craze, at least not until now, and only last week did I discover that my daughter-in-law has long been a fan of the doll line. With a visit this week from family, we set out to the new AG store at the Mall of America, where I got to experience the phenomenon first hand.
That’s not to say I went entirely willingly. The Mathemagician and I actually planned our escape shortly after arriving, but we were warned in no uncertain terms by the First Mate and the DIL that we would … enjoy ourselves, or else. The Little Admiral was delighted, clearly having the time of her life, and I went through the displays of historical dolls to pass the time while everyone else shopped.
At its base, American Dolls are just like every other marketed toy line — it exists to sell product, and it has lots of product to sell. They feed the collector impulse by constantly releasing new models and discontinuing certain older ones, and they follow the Gillette model of accessorizing for maximum sales. To me, that’s neither good nor bad, but simply consumer-driven behavior. Their success at it is impressive, and their care in presenting it shows a large investment in protecting the model.
Still, one can say the same thing about the Bratz girl dolls, which I’ve criticized sharply for years. They’re just providing what consumers apparently want, too. The difference is that the AG makers (now owned by Mattel) have a sense of some responsibility to their patrons. The regular dolls are pretty much the same as any other, especially the Bitty Baby line, but their historical dolls tell stories of American history, self-assurance, and pioneer spirit. They get pretty expensive, too, but at least they send a message that serves a far better purpose than the rank and tawdry sexuality of the Bratz line and the self-absorption of Barbie.
I’m always leery of marketing campaigns aimed at children, but at least the American Girls line has redeeming qualities to it. That’s not to say that I’m going to love shopping at the store, but at least I can add to the Little Admiral’s collection with a clear conscience — and hopefully help teach her some of the values that make this nation great at the same time.
Addendum: I am aware of the controversy that erupted in 2005 over AG’s connection to Girls Inc. They did some cross-promotional work, which angered conservatives after Girls Inc support for abortion came to light. Mattel ended that relationship at the end of 2005, and as far as I know, has kept American Girl out of reproductive politics ever since.