‘American Girl’ & Me

By Margaret Lyons

Were you into American Girl dolls? I sent that text several times this spring; I asked every woman I know, and many men. Because I live in Brooklyn and work in media, nearly every conversation in my life eventually turns toward podcasts — is the true crime boom grief appropriation? Is listening at 1.5 times the normal speed a travesty? Is every Gimlet show host who talks about anxiety just giving me anxiety? Oh, did you hear the new show … and was that the one … and on and on.

Were you into American Girl dolls? I’d ask.

Were they ever!

Because there’s this podcast …

The American Girls Podcast, a show that launched in February, is a book-by-book examination of the historical fiction series from two historians, Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney, who are funny and knowledgeable. We laugh; we learn. “Felicity is a young girl living in colonial Virginia,” Horrocks says on the first episode. “Her father is a shopkeeper, and her mother is a buzzkill.” That’s when I knew the podcast would provide me hours of delights, which it has.

I did not, however, expect it to re-contextualize the abundant doll joys of my youth — but it’s done that, too.

Pleasant Company, founded by Pleasant Rowland, launched the first wave of American Girl dolls in the 1980s, with characters from different historical periods and six corresponding books for each. (The company was rebranded as American Girl following its acquisition by Mattel in 1998.) The dolls have always been very expensive.

Over the course of the books, each heroine celebrates her birthday and Christmas (later, a Jewish doll was introduced, but this was well after my time), does some kind of summer recreational activity, makes at least one friend, thwarts at least one enemy and establishes some kind of companionship with an animal. She also speaks reverently of her own doll; you can buy your doll a doll, too, but she is sold separately. I was a through-and-through American Girl fan, and I remember dutifully arranging the books on my bookshelf, though the more vivid memory is reverently reading every page of the catalog.

American Girls Podcast is moving chronologically through history, not the order in which the dolls were released, so they began the show with Felicity. Current episodes focus on Josefina, who lives in the 1820s in what is now New Mexico. (She wasn’t introduced to the collection until 1997, after my doll days had passed.) Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant who lives in the Minnesota Territory in the 1850s (and my personal fave), will be next, followed by Addy, the first black American Girl doll, and whose first book includes her and her mother escaping slavery. Then comes Samantha, an orphan raised by her grandmother in 1904 New York. Finally, there will be Molly, an Illinois girl whose father is serving overseas in World War II. After it finishes with the original lineup, the podcast will cover the newer characters — like Nanea, who lives through Pearl Harbor, and Julie, who’s into folk music in the ’70s — in the order in which they were introduced.

Here’s what I remembered about the books: Mad, roiling jealousy that little girls got to have bodacious adventures 100 years ago and all I did was play softball and sing in choruses. Might I, like Kirsten, be named Lucia queen to celebrate St. Lucia’s day, wear a candle crown and present my family with cinnamon rolls? No, Margaret, the adults in my life would say. We are not Swedish, and you are not allowed to use the oven by yourself.

Might I embody the spirit of the American Revolution by rescuing a horse, and also by subverting expectations at my stuffy etiquette classes? Well … feel free to turn your spoon however you want, but no one else knows the norms of Colonial tea settings, so be prepared for that to go unnoticed.

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