DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Remaking American Girl(hood):

Fan Reuse, Reinterpretation, Alteration and Expansion of the American Girl Brand



            Visiting the American Girl Place in Chicago as a child was exciting and chaotic. I can clearly remember being overwhelmed by a desire for anything and everything I saw in the store, though I cannot recall the specific products that tempted me. This desire was tied to the experiences sold at American Girl Place as well as the dolls, clothes, and accessories. I wanted to have my doll’s hair done, and wished for a reason to send her to the hospital. I yearned to attend tea in the cafe as often as possible and I dreamed that once I was old enough, I could be one of the young actresses that performed in the Musical Revue. Even when I didn’t buy anything, going to the store at all was a fabulous treat.

            My older sister Kali received her American Girl doll, Samantha, before I had one. Kali and I both had American Girl doll brand baby dolls before we upgraded to American Girl dolls, but when Kali had Samantha, my Bitty Baby was little consolation. I needed an American Girl doll. While I have vivid memories of this envy, I don’t actually remember receiving my American Girl doll, Josefina. I am sure though, that I was allowed to choose her, and I do remember playing with her. I also vaguely remember reading Meet Josefina, and a few of the other American Girl books, but before reading them again in the course of my research, I did not remember the particular details of the plot, or even the exact time and place where each girl’s story was set. All I remember learning about Josefina as a child was how to pronounce her name. It gave me great pleasure to correct anyone who said it wrong.


Company History

            By the time I received my doll, the American Girl doll brand was well established. Pleasant Rowland founded the Pleasant Company in 1986 with an original product line of three American Girl characters, each from a different time and place in American History. The company offered a doll, a series of historical fiction, and a number of outfits and accessories for each character.

             In 1984, Rowland visited Colonial Williamsburg and was deeply impressed by “this fabulous classroom of living history.”[1] Soon afterward, she was disappointed by the selection of dolls available to buy as gifts for her nieces. Connecting these two events, Rowland was struck with the idea for American Girl: she would create a line dolls from different moments in American History. A series of historical fiction about a nine year old girl would accompany each doll, and their clothing and accessories would be historically accurate.  

            Over the next twelve years, American Girl steadily grew. By 1998, the year I turned seven, the original Historical Characters line of dolls had expanded to 6 characters and was accompanied by a line of cotemporary dolls called American Girl Today. By this point, the company also produced Bitty Baby dolls for younger girls. American Girl publishing had also expanded to include American Girl Magazine and several advice books for girls. That year, the company changed in two important ways. Before 1998, American Girl functioned entirely through direct order from catalogues. In 1998, this changed when American Girl opened the first American Girl Place, a branded, multi-experience megastore in Chicago. In the same year, Pleasant Rowland sold the Pleasant Company to Mattel for $700 million.[2]


American Girl Today

            Today, American Girl has five lines of products: The original Historical Characters, the Girl of the Year series, My American Girl, Bitty Babies, and Bitty Twins. As of April 2014, the Historical Characters line includes eleven dolls whose stories are set in eight different points in United States history. Nine of these dolls represent the main characters in their series and two are best friend characters. In addition to clothes and accessories, a series of 6 books is sold with each of the nine main character dolls. One or more mystery novels are also available for each main character and are marketed to a slightly older audience (ages nine and up rather than eight and up). Activity books (eg. paper dolls, crafts) are also available for several of the characters. The first four dolls sold by the company have all been discontinued, which American Girl refers to as “archiving.” The three original dolls, Samantha (1904, New York), Kirsten (1854, Minnesota), and Molly (1944, Illinois) were archived in 2009, 2010, and 2014 respectively. Felicity (1774, Williamsburg), who was the fourth doll offered by the Pleasant Company was archived in 2011.[3] Though these dolls, their clothing and accessories are no longer available, American Girl still sells the book series about each character.    

            The Girl of the Year series was introduced in 2001.[4] Every year, a new character is introduced as the Girl of the Year. Each Girl of the Year is accompanied by two books set in the year she is introduced, and lots of clothing and accessories. Like the Historical Characters, each Girl of the Year is nine years old. All products associated with the Girl of the Year, except for her books, are only available for one year, after which she is archived. In her books, the Girl of the Year deals with the stresses of modern life, ranging from bullying to pollution. At the end of each of these books, American Girl includes letters written by customers seeking advice, and provides responses.

            The My American Girl series of dolls, the new name for American Girl Today, do not come with individual back stories and names. Instead, these dolls’ personalities and names are defined by the customer. My American Girl dolls come with codes, which American Girl customers can use to sign into Innerstar University, a virtual world created by American Girl.[5] There are currently 49 different dolls offered in the My American Girl line, each with a unique combination of eye, skin, and hair colors, hair length, and hair texture. Many girls purchase My American Girl dolls that look like them. The clothing and accessories sold with this line of dolls are modern and very extensive. Several matching outfits for girls and their dolls are also available.

            There are currently sixteen American Girl Place stores located across the continental United States and two stores coming soon in Canada.[6] In addition to areas for each product line, each store features a doll hair salon, a bookstore, and a bistro or restaurant. Some stores have additional areas: the Chicago American Girl Places has a bakery counter, a customizable t-shirt station (with matching shirts for girls and dolls), a photo studio, and a doll hospital. In addition to the regular goods and services they offer, the stores host special events such as craft activities, scavenger hunts, and author visits.

            The American Girl Place stores still overwhelm me when I visit them. I have been to the stores in Chicago, Boston, and New York, and am amazed by each. The experience of visiting an American Girl Place store begins a few blocks away, as more and more families carrying the brand’s signature red bags begin to appear. Inside, the stores are impeccably designed, and overwhelmingly pink. They are always crowded with girls, each carrying a doll, and their families, who look carefully over the meticulous displays and discuss the seemingly endless products available. When I go to the stores, I am astounded by the sheer number and range of products available, and by the extreme focus on dolls. There is something incomprehensible, and delightful, about a hair salon for dolls.

            When she founded the Pleasant Company in 1986, Pleasant Rowland created a retail giant. Over its 27-year history, American Girl has sold over 143 million books, more than 23 million dolls. Today, it boasts a magazine circulation over 450,000.[7] The dolls, as well as the books, movies, clothes and accessories are extraordinarily popular. The American Girl brand behind this success is well developed and carefully controlled. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Christina Binkley describes the intensive process the American Girl company underwent to develop Nicki, the 2007 Girl of the Year. In order to design Nicki, her clothes and accessories, and the problems she faced, the company held focus groups with girls and mothers, researched fashion trends, and reviewed “a trove of customer feedback culled from its magazine, Web and book publishing empire.”[8] Every detail of Nicki’s appearance, personality, and story were carefully designed to appeal to American Girl consumers.

            This description is consistent with the experiences revealed by American Girl authors in interviews. When Mary Casanova wrote the books for Jess, Chrissa, and McKenna, American Girl provided very specific guidelines. They chose the eye and hair color for each doll and provided a list of 8-10 names to choose from.[9] The company also specified particular traits and interests the character should have, and the central problem she should face. They provided a team of researchers to answer questions. When Casanova wrote the McKenna books, the company requested that they be set in Seattle, and asked that she include a star necklace in the story.[10] By the time each Girl of the Year is finally released, she is the result of extensive research and planning. Each character is specifically designed to appeal to girls and to deal with relevant issues. The rest of American Girl’s branded image is the result of similarly careful planning and control.


Morality and Consumerism

            American Girl’s careful brand design and impressive success have caught the attention of several scholars who study branding. In Why Are Themed Brandstores So Powerful? Retail Brand Ideology at American Girl Place, Borghini et al. discuss the importance of the American Girl Places in establishing American Girl’s complex brand identity. They describe the educational and entertaining aspects of these stories aimed at mothers and daughters respectively, and argue that they are brought together through intergenerational connection and shared female experience. The varied experiences offered at the American Girl Place stores create powerful connections with consumers as they invoke various traditionally female moral and social values. They argue that these diverse features immerse the mothers and daughters who shop at American Girl Place, connecting the purchase of American Girl merchandise with stories of female heroism that are steeped in these morals and values.[11]

            Diamond et al. also note the power of the multiple channels in creating a branded image of womanhood—and girlhood—at American Girl. In their analysis of these various channels, they note “scripts for the enactment of heroic femininity,” and argue that the stories and images in these scripts simultaneously offer clear moral lessons, shield girls from sexuality, encourage intergenerational connection and perpetuate female domesticity.[12] These themes pervade the brand and constitute its strongest appeal. They argue, however, that these values make a much greater impact on the adults who buy the dolls than the girls who play with them.[13]

             Diane Carver Sekeres argues that the moral lessons at American Girl do impact young consumers.[14] She uses the American Girl books as an example of “branded fiction” in which the reader’s experience of the books is altered by knowledge of other product lines. She argues that each character embodies “a character trait that ‘American girls’ should have.”[15] Together, the dolls present a set of positive traits, creating a wholesome image of girlhood. Furthermore, because they experience American Girl through so many forms of media and play, their customers are deeply invested in these characters and the traits they express.

            Scholars of children’s literature have also commented on the moral lessons in the American Girl books. Jan Susina argues that the books act as a gateway to the American Girl brand which, though it also eschews sexualization and promotes girl-positive morals, is essentially consumerist.[16] Jennifer Miskec criticizes the prescriptive nature of the morals in the stories. She explores the messages in the American Girl series through comparison with Annie Barrows’ Ivy and Bean series. Unlike Ivy and Bean, Miskec argues that the American Girl series create a script for obedience, teaching young readers how to be “good girls,” who fit comfortably within social norms.[17] Susina and Miskec are critical in these judgments. They view the morality lessons in American Girl as limiting, and consumerist. Acosta-Alzuru and Kreshel investigated the impact of these lessons on American Girl customers’ understandings of identity. Their interviews with girls and their mothers revealed that American Girl customers viewed the identity “American Girl” positively but did not associate it with the company’s messages about empowerment and individuality.[18]

            Daniel Hade approaches American Girl from a historical perspective and criticizes the version of the past presented by the books. He argues that American Girl offers an oversimplified, nationalistic version of American history that is rife with factual errors. Using Samantha as an example, he shows that American Girl discusses the problems of history from a privileged perspective in which “all needs are met by opportunities, where all poverty and oppression can be easily solved by the initiative of a young child.”[19] Hade argues that the stories in American Girl sanitize history by ignoring the complex causes for conflict and inequality and limiting the identity of “American Girl” to wealthy protagonists.

            Fred Nielsen counters this perspective, arguing that the American Girl books are appropriate for the child audience to which they are marketed.[20] He acknowledges that the earlier books gloss over problems to make them unrealistically solvable, but argues that this is not true in all of the American Girl books. He notes that later characters are often of limited means and do not necessarily meet happy endings. Rather than undermining history, Nielsen posits that the books undermine the goals of the company by presenting stories which teach girls to value relationships rather than possessions.  Kim Chuppa-Cornell also notes contradictions between the books and the catalogues and products. Paying particular attention to the description and presentation of hair, she argues that the dolls promote superficial, appearance based values that stand in direct contrast to the books which “might inspire young female readers to pursue their dreams or to develop true friendships or to combat social ills or to overcome hardships or to learn more about history.”[21]

            In general, scholarship on American Girl has focused on the dual moral and consumerist values that permeate the company. The moral values implicit in the stories and messages communicated by American Girl are a powerful aspect of its brand, attracting mothers, and instructing girls. While some scholars consider the historical content of American Girl, any history in the books is overshadowed by morality and representation. The stories present strong, successful girls who are largely unconcerned with appearance or romance. They also, however, through the moral lessons embedded in each story, present clear models for “correct” behavior. These models are built conservative versions of domestic womanhood and overt messages of consumerism. Alongside models of behavior, girls are encouraged to define their identities through consumption of the American Girl brand, and buy more products.


Race and Ethnicity

            Some of the above scholars mention race in their studies. Though Nielsen defends the historical narratives in the American Girl books overall, he is critical of the erasure of slavery in the Felicity series, and Jim Crow in Samantha’s books.[22] In her discussion of hair in the American Girl books, Chuppa-Cornell notes that hair is often featured prominently the in the stories about girls of color, especially when discrimination and racism figure into the plot.[23]

            Other scholars focused explicitly on race and ethnicity. Representations of race in the American Girl books figured prominently into Acosta-Alzuru and Kreshel’s investigation of identity. The girls interviewed for their study had ambiguous reactions to Josefina and Addy. While girls liked both dolls, their responses to Addy revealed varied understanding of race and ethnicity, and the relationship of each to American identity. And when asked about Josefina, girls did not identify her as “American.”[24] Acosta-Alzuru and Kreshel argue that this reflects Josefina’s presentation by American Girl which does not contradict stereotypes or preconceptions of Latina women.

            In her discussion of Marisol Luna, Girl of the Year 2005, Jennifer Rudolph also considers American Girl’s presentation of Latina girls and women. She argues that while diversity in American Girl’s line of dolls seems inclusive and empowering, the book about Marisol “privileges middle-class, Anglo-American cultural norms and spaces” and depicts the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago negatively.[25] Rudolph also notes that the narratives American Girl offers about girls of color and particularly Latina girls are limited. She argues that Marisol and Josefina’s storylines both “construct (Latin) American girlhood in gendered patriarchal terms, as both girls are socialized into “feminine” domestic roles such as cooking and helping to take care of their fathers.”[26] Ultimately, American Girl presents models of behavior that fail to challenge stereotypes, whether racial, or gendered.


Fan Production

            In general, the scholars discussed above used the American Girl store, books, catalogues as their primary sources and sites of analysis, and did not consider the various consumers of these products. When customers were considered and interviewed, they were the girls and mothers found at the store, and their direct consumption and interpretation of American Girl products and stories was the focus. The analysis of these sources is valuable and informative, but American Girl’s products and typical consumers are not the only sources of information about the brand. American Girl customers often don’t simply consume the company’s products. Instead, they creatively interpret, alter, and reuse the brand to create their own content and meanings. These fan creations alter the meanings associated with American Girl and reveal a great deal, both about the brand and about its consumers.   

            Originally, I intended to focus my thesis on American Girl’s Historical Characters. Like many others, I noticed the similarities between the Historical Character displays at the American Girl Place stores, and the dioramas often found at history and natural history museums. My original idea was to write about these similarities and to consider American Girl’s commodification of history. I wondered how they presented history compared with museums, to what extent they used history as a marketing tool, and to what extent they hope to educate. As I researched the brand however, I found that I was not very interested by those questions. I discovered that I was (and am) much more interested with how real girls engage and create using American Girl.

               In this thesis, I consider content created by individuals unaffiliated with American Girl. This content is often creative and takes on several forms as fans repurpose, reuse and expand upon officially branded products. Like the brand itself, customer creations vary in terms of media and experience. Consumers work with the written content in the books, the physical dolls and accessories, and with the brand itself. All of these productions are based in branded content, but they do not necessarily replicate branded meanings. Instead, they alter, expand, and build upon them.

            In my first chapter, I consider American Girl stories posted on FanFiction.net. In fan fiction, fans of American Girl rework and add to the narratives in the books. Fan fiction expands upon the back stories contained in the books written about each American Girl doll. Authors on FanFiction.net use the characters and settings created by American Girl and build new stories around them, often set several years in the future of the canonical works. These stories vary in length, style, and content, and reflect both the themes introduced by the company as well as the various connections, goals, and imaginations of their creators.

            Another active American Girl fan community resides on YouTube.com. This community, which is referred to as AGTube by its members, is the subject of my second chapter. AGTube’s collective library of videos about and/or featuring American Girl products is the result of extensive creative reuse and interpretation of the physical content created by the company. There are several categories and types of AGTube videos: stop motion animations (AGSM), narrative stories, photo slideshows (AGPS), video blogs, instructional videos, and music videos (AGMV).  Like the authors on FanFiction.net, AGTubers are creative and committed. Their videos often diverge from branded storylines, but they remain firmly connected to the brand’s physical products; AGTubers often form huge collections of American Girl dolls, clothing, and accessories which they use as characters and costumes for their videos. AGTube also constitutes a distinct community. AGTubers comment on one another’s videos, create video responses, and often forge friendships.

            The stories and videos created by current and previous American Girl consumers differs significantly from the American Girl events hosted by museums, historic houses, and libraries. These events, which are the subject of my third chapter, take advantage of American Girl’s popularity to appeal to young female audiences. Though these events vary considerably in programming, and use of American Girl content, their existence reflects the similarities between American Girl and museums, particularly historic house museums. In many ways, the narratives and content in American Girl’s Historical Character series resemble and parallel interpretation at historic houses. 

            American Girl often appears in newspaper articles, online magazines, and popular blog posts. My fourth chapter is focused on articles written about American Girl by adult women who used to own American Girl dolls and books. In their articles, these women praise, criticize, analyze, and reminisce about the company, and apply the stories to their own lives. Ultimately, the authors and readers of these articles reveal their nostalgic memories of childhood toys, and lasting commitment to the American Girl brand. Though these women no longer play with their American Girl dolls, they still view the brand as important and relevant to their lives. In addition to remembering the brand, they use it as a lens for understanding themselves.

            Henry Jenkins argues that “One becomes a 'fan'…by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a 'community' of other fans who share common interests… for fans, consumption naturally sparks production.”[27]All of the consumers discussed in this thesis fit Jenkins’s conception of a fan. In the following chapters, I consider their various creative reuses of American Girl’s products. Previous research on American Girl has focused on the meanings created by the brand and consumed by seven to twelve year old customers. In my thesis, I move beyond these sources by considering fans of American Girl who actively create and share new content. I hope to show that these groups and their creations are relevant and revealing sources of information about the American Girl brand, its products, and its consumers. I also hope to show that though the company is powerful, they are not the sole producers branded meanings. Consumption of American Girl products is often a productive process through which meanings are interpreted, negotiated, altered, and expanded.

[1] Pleasant Rowland and Julie Sloane, “A New Twist on Timeless Toys,” 2002, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2002/10/01/330574/index.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Company History,” American Girl, accessed April 5, 2014, http://www.americangirl.com/corp/corporate.php?section=about&id=2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Innerstar University Online World for Girls,” American Girl, accessed April 5, 2014, http://web.innerstaru.com/.

[6] “American Girl Stores,” American Girl, accessed April 5, 2014, http://www.americangirl.com/stores/.

[7] “Fast Facts,” American Girl, accessed April 5, 2014, http://www.americangirl.com/corp/corporate.php?section=about&id=6.

[8] Christina Binkley, “The Selling of Nicki: Overscheduled Skier With a Cute Dog; In the ‘Brainstorm Room,’ American Girl Executives Concoct a Doll of the Year,” Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, December 30, 2006.

[9] Mary Casanova, American Girl Doll Author Mary Casanova Drops By to Chat, interview by Sharon K. Mayhew, April 21, 2010, http://skmayhew.blogspot.com/2010/04/american-girl-doll-author-mary-casanova.html; Mary Casanova, Interview with Mary Casanova, author of Jess, Chrissa, and Cecile!, interview by Girl Doll Talk, April 3, 2010, http://girldolltalk.blogspot.com/2010/04/interview-with-mary-casanova-author-of.html.

[10] Mary Casanova, An Interview with Mary Casanova, interview by Suzanne Lieurance, January 5, 2012, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bookbitesforkids/2012/01/05/an-interview-with-mary-casanova.

[11] Stefania Borghini et al., “Why Are Themed Brandstores So Powerful? Retail Brand Ideology at American Girl Place,” Journal of Retailing 85, no. 3 (September 2009): 363–75.

[12] Nina Diamond et al., “American Girl and the Brand Gestalt: Closing the Loop on Sociocultural Branding Research,” Journal of Marketing 73, no. 3 (May 2009): 124, doi:10.1509/jmkg.73.3.118.

[13] Ibid., 130.

[14] Diane Carver Sekeres, “The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children’s Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies,” Reading Research Quarterly 44, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 399–414, doi:10.2307/25655466.

[15] Ibid., 407.

[16] Jan Susina, “American Girls Collection: Barbies with a Sense of History,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 24, no. 3 (1999): 130–35, doi:10.1353/chq.0.1170.

[17] Jennifer M. Miskec, “Meet Ivy and Bean, Queerly the Anti-American Girls,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34, no. 2 (2009): 158, doi:10.1353/chq.0.1907.

[18] Carolina Acosta-Alzuru and Peggy J. Kreshel, “‘I’m an American Girl...Whatever That Means’: Girls Consuming Pleasant Company’s American Girl Identity,” Journal of Communication 52, no. 1 (January 2002): 156, doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2002.tb02536.x.

[19] Daniel Hade, “Lies My Children’s Books Taught Me: History Meets Popular Culture in ‘The American Girls’ Books,” in Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context, ed. Roderick McGillis (Psychology Press, 2000), 163.

[20] Fred Nielsen, “American History through the Eyes of the American Girls,” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 25, no. 1–2 (2002): 85–93, doi:10.1111/1542-734X.00014.

[21] Kim Chuppa-Cornell, “When Fact Is Stranger than Fiction: Hair in American Girl Stories and Dolls,” The Lion and the Unicorn 37, no. 2 (2013): 121, doi:10.1353/uni.2013.0020.

[22] Nielsen, “American History through the Eyes of the American Girls,” 89.

[23] Chuppa-Cornell, “When Fact Is Stranger than Fiction,” 114–115.

[24] Acosta-Alzuru and Kreshel, “"I’m an American Girl ?,” 151–152.

[25] Jennifer Rudolph, “Identity Theft: Gentrification, Latinidad, and American Girl Marisol Luna,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 34, no. 1 (April 1, 2009): 72.

[26] Ibid., 71.

[27] Henry Jenkins, “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers : Exploring Participatory Culture (New York, NY, USA: New York University Press (NYU Press), 2006), 41, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10176209.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.