American Girl's adult doll fans are passionate. Now they're also divided.
American Girl made a splash by releasing a doll with an LGBT storyline and plans for more racially-diverse characters. But some hardcore fans say they’re frustrated by the doll community’s resistance to inclusivity, claiming homophobia and racism brew in online forums.
At the end of December, Mattel unveiled its “2021 Girl of the Year,” a 10-year-old named Kira Bailey from Michigan who’s passionate about climate change’s impact on wildlife. In the accompanying book Kira Down Under, the girl visits an animal sanctuary in Australia operated by her great-aunts Mamie and Lynette, who are in a same-sex marriage. Kira is not the brand’s first dive into LGBT content — the September advice book A Smart Girl’s Guide: Crushes (formerly A Smart Girl’s Guide to Boys) was updated to include same-sex relationships and in February, American Girl will publish the book Pets, featuring a mixed-race family with two dads, following 2019’s Understanding Families about diverse family structures.
Kira is, however, the first character whose story mentions a same-sex relationship. In the book, she explains that her aunts married “after the law was changed to allow it,” referring to Australian Parliament’s 2017 decision to legalize gay marriage, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court did the same.
Those who follow the company’s Facebook page adored Kira’s “Bindi Irwin” aesthetic and social consciousness. American Girl Doll News blogger Sydney Jean wrote a post titled “Why Kira's Aunts Mean The World To Me” in which she thanks the brand for “creating some more hard-to-find representation for us LGBT people. I will forever remember Kira as a doll with a groundbreaking story due to this, and I will cherish her forever.”
However, a viral TikTok video by Boston collector Rebecca Nachman alleged that some in private fan groups disagreed. “Here’s all the drama in the American Girl world that’s gone down in just the last three days,” she said in her Dec. 23 post. “The other day, it was leaked that the new ‘Girl of the Year’ was going to have lesbian aunts and people lost their goddamn minds. There was so much blatant homophobia in all these American Girl Facebook groups I’m in and it was horrific.”
One-star Amazon book reviews (out of 24) for Kira Down Under read, “Homosexuality is an inappropriate topic for a children’s book and I am very disappointed that it was woven so blatantly into the storyline for Kira,” “The storyline is inappropriate and far too mature for young readers” and “Parents are not informed of lesbian relationship in the story.”
Backlash to American Girl progressiveness — the company has made other changes in recent years to have its dolls reflect the individuals buying them — isn’t isolated to Kira’s aunts. The same month, American Girl made an anti-racism pledge, shared on Facebook, to hire more Black writers and expand its racially-diverse characters caused another rift between supporters and “a lot of upset white women,” as it was put in the comments, some of whom accused AG of “caving into political correctness.”
“Once again, people lost their minds,” Nachman explained in the video, referring to the announcement. “And a whole lot of racist white women threatened to boycott American Girl for ‘leftist brainwashing.’”
Julie Parks, an American Girl spokesperson, tells Yahoo Life, “From the beginning, our ‘Girl of the Year’ characters have been designed to reflect girls’s lives today and the realities of the times. As a brand, we’ve always strived to share the message that there’s no ‘magic recipe’ for a family and that families can be made up of all kinds of ingredients — and each is unique and lovely. We know for girls who can directly relate to Kira’s circumstances (i.e. a father who has passed away or a couple in a same-sex marriage), we’re glad to show them that the make-up of one’s family doesn’t matter — it’s still a family and that’s all the counts. It’s a sentiment we love at American Girl.”
Parks continued, “Regarding any concerns about our commitment to racial equality, American Girl was built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion, and we remain committed to empowering the next generation of girls who will emerge as leaders who value empathy, equality and respect. We’re proud of our reputation for having a wide range of inclusive and diverse dolls, accessories and content and we’re excited about our upcoming plans that will allow for even more girls to see themselves reflected in our products.”
That’s accurate for Nachman, 22, who describes herself as a “casual collector,” having owned three as a child and 14 as an adult. Her favorite is Addy Walker, a Black doll released in 1993, whose storyline details her escape from slavery. “She was my first exposure to racism,” Nachman tells Yahoo Life, listing Julie, who fought for female representation on a 1970s boys’ basketball team and Kit Kittredge, who grew up during the Great Depression, as educational tools. “I genuinely think the American Girl books radicalized me a bit and taught me values.”
American Girl was founded in 1986 by Chicago teacher and history lover Pleasant Rowland, who observed less variety for doll lovers over the age of six. "Mothers were tired of the sexualization of little girls, tired of making children grow up too fast," Rowland told CNN Money in 2002 to explain the brand’s 8+ audience. "They yearned for a product that would both capture their child's interest and allow little girls to be little girls for a little longer."
Each 18-inch doll was sold with clothing and books describing her adventures, with the first six establishing American Girl’s “historical line,” reflecting characters from 1774 to 1904. Along with Addy, there was Kirsten Larson, a Swedish immigrant, Molly McIntire, of World War II, Samantha Parkington, a Victorian-period orphan, Felicity Merriman, a daughter of the Revolutionary War and Josefina Montoya, who lived on a ranch in New Mexico.
Eleven dolls currently make up the Historical Collection, including those released by Mattel, which acquired The Pleasant Company in 1998 for $700 million as a “perfect complement” to its Barbie brand which caters to girls ages two to seven. Though some dolls are no longer available, collectors luck out by surfing Facebook buy-sell groups.
Under Mattel’s leadership, American Girl further diversified with Joss, who wears a hearing aid, Gwen who is unhoused and lives in a car with her mother and a male doll named Logan. Under its “Truly Me” personalized line, it offers dolls without hair, appealing to kids with cancer and the hair loss disorder alopecia and accessories like a wheelchair, “medication” kits for dolls with asthma and diabetes and a set of arm crutches.
The initiatives aren’t always home runs. In 2005, conservative groups encouraged an American Girl boycott for its partnership with Girls, Inc., a group that advocates for reproductive freedom and LGBT-inclusive sex education. And in 2015, American Girl magazine (which folded in 2019) ran a profile of a Black girl in Maryland named Amaya who was adopted by two white dads, prompting a conservative activist to slam American Girl’s “homosexual agenda.” However, Parks asserts that “numerous fans were thrilled about it.”
Parks declined to share demographic information, saying, “Like most brands, we have a wide range of customers from all backgrounds, races, cultures, religions and life experiences. And, while we know there are some fans who may take issue with a storyline or discussion, we have an equal number who appreciate, praise and respect what we’ve created.”
Mary Mahoney, a postdoctoral fellow in digital humanities at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and the co-creator of the American Girl Podcast, has a theory about fan ferocity. “Something that's emerged on the show, for a lot of women who valued the brand, is that you mapped yourself to a doll,” she tells Yahoo Life. “...People identify as a doll, with its story and personality something relatable on a cellular level. And when the brand changes [their] stories or signals to move in [a certain] direction, it changes [one’s] relationship to the brand and to themselves.”
Allison Horrocks, a public historian and the podcast’s co-creator, agrees. “Addy Walker, the first Black doll, is highly controversial because she’s an object that can be ‘owned’...” also noting that proud Black mothers have sent her photos of their daughters playing with Addy. Horrocks adds in an email: “Most of Addy's books feature her as a self-liberated person but in the first volume, she is an enslaved person. When we were kids, she was the only doll you could own whose story also included her being owned by other people.”
The podcasters, who share a love for Molly’s “spunkiness,” take a critical eye to the beloved brand. “People have been right to point out that American Girl can take a complex story and set it somewhere else,” says Horrocks, adding that Kira, an environmentalist, could stay home in Michigan where the effects of the 2014 Flint water crisis linger, or travel to the west coast which burned with wildfires in 2019. Likewise, the doll’s LGBT storyline took place overseas.
“Displacement is a way to placate potential discomfort,” observes Mahoney. “It’s like saying, ‘They do that in Australia’ so we follow Kira there. No one has to have a conversation about queerness in the U.S. — it’s portrayed like a local curiosity that she’s encountering abroad.”
Minnesota collector Adia Ward, who owns 13 dolls and 30 AG books, recalls feeling torn about a 2014 white doll named Isabelle Palmer, who hails from Washington, D.C. (Ward’s childhood home), from the wealthy pocket of Georgetown. “I just remember feeling irritated because….D.C. is half black,” the social worker tells Yahoo Life of its 46 percent Black or African-American demographics. “......[They] could have made her biracial — throw her a bone...”
Maryland preschool teacher Nina J. (who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons), owns 26 dolls, for which she sews clothes as a hobby. “I have had other collectors get very offended that I think there need to be less blonde dolls, or when I point out how many white dolls have existed versus dolls of color that are available,” she tells Yahoo Life, pointing to those displeased by AG’s upcoming contemporary doll line. “They don't think it's necessary because they're fine with the limited diversity.”
Since “Girl of the Year” debuted in 2001, 19 dolls have been named, a majority of them white with the exception of Marisol Luna (Mexican-American), Jess Akiko McConnell (Japanese-American), Gabriela McBride (African-American) and Luciana Vega (Latina). Kanani Akina is muti-ethnic — Polynesian, Japanese and Caucasian — because, as AG explains, “...We felt it was important that Kanani’s story and heritage reflect the fact that most families in Hawaii are multi-ethnic (or have a mixed racial heritage).”
At heart, the American Girl experience still reflects “the important moments of girlhood and how it changed and how it stayed the same over the years,” as described by Rowland on the brand’s 25th anniversary in 2011.
“People honestly forget where American Girl came from; they haven’t read the stories,” Nevada-based collector Kelsea Frobes, 16, tells Yahoo Life. “The girls in these stories face extreme hardships, sometimes topics that get very real. I’ve seen people complaining that topics like racism and discrimination are ‘adult’ topics and kids shouldn’t have to worry about them, however, if you’re a person of color, you experience racism and discrimination in everyday life, regardless of age.”
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