‘American Girl’ & Me

A podcast has helped me unpack how the historical doll and book series inspired a creative adulthood.

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.

Can I set my hair in curlers and learn a dance? Actually, that we can do.

Alas, it was really my little sister who was the Molly of our family, though per Molly’s behavior I did once try biting into a pine needle that fell off the Christmas tree. (Verdict: Blech! Never again.)

For the purposes of this article, I went back and read or reread a dozen of the books, which were a bit more repetitive than I remembered — lots of descriptions of characters feeling the sun on their face — but also much, much sadder. Many of the girls are tormented with grief, and some take on tremendous child-rearing responsibilities even though they’re 9 years old. The books each end pretty abruptly, but I guess that’s how they get you to come back for more earnest history lessons.

Because doll-playing and literature are themselves so expansive, so too is American Girls Podcast, where topics can bounce from Britney Spears — “If I were a teacher, I would teach the American Revolution through Britney Spears” — to theories that Josefina’s aunt, Tía Dolores, is a murderer, to a deconstruction of ham-handed ’90s attempts at multiculturalism. The hosts toss off St. Augustine quotes, but also deeply engage with “The Bachelorette,” wonder whether Ben Franklin’s propagandist side would have flourished in a Fyre Festival context and discuss the history of neurasthenia when Felicity’s mother falls ill with an unnamed disease.

Did I know that my first brush with “The Feminine Mystique” was actually in “Felicity Learns a Lesson?” I had not put that together until the second episode of the podcast. But I do vividly remember Felicity’s mom, Mrs. Merriman, teaching her about slicing apples to reveal the star inside, how she’d insisted that “many lovely things are private and hidden” and how as a kid I’d thought that lesson sounded terrible. I stand by it.

Re-engaging with doll culture — even if it’s reflecting on possibly the bougiest part of my privileged youth — has prompted me to reconsider how essential all that playing was to how I think about character, story, interiority. My friend Erin and I write screenplays together, an act we lovingly compare to playing Barbies, especially when we gleefully write a scene in which two characters kiss. When Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach recently signed on to write a Barbie movie, some scoffed, but I thought “Great!” Because “Frances Ha” is totally a Barbie movie — at least the way I played — where dancing and social jealousy were intensely overrepresented, along with gymnastics and ideas I encountered in “Reader’s Digest.”

Listening to the American Girls Podcast is reshaping some of the ways I think about doll-playing in general. I learned from “Free to Be … You And Me” that “William wants a doll ’cause someday he is going to be a father, too.” Well, William, all I can say is: Life might surprise you. Playing with dolls helped prepare Horrocks and Mahoney, by their own accounts, for lives in historical scholarship. Dolls helped me prepare for a life in the arts. If you play making apple butter, or goat-herding, or sturdy perseverance in the face of unforgiving winters; if you play with loss before you have to encounter it; if you play survival, or freedom or girlhood — who knows what you’ll be prepared for.

Margaret Lyons is a television critic. She previously spent five years as a writer and TV columnist for Vulture.com. She helped launch Time Out Chicago and later wrote for Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. @margeincharge

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