When I was a child in the early ’90s, there were two types of kid—those who had American Girl dolls and those who did not (I did not meet any boys until much later). And because I did not know any rich enough to actually play with her $82 American Girl doll, long afternoons were spent just staring at Felicity, Molly, or if the child were the most unfortunate of the fortunate, Samantha. When we were done staring, we spent hours reading and rereading the doll’s accompanying historical fiction storybook and fantasizing about female empowerment throughout different eras of American history.
But sales indicate that today’s kids are over American Girl dolls. Fast Company reports that the company’s sales are in free-fall, declining 28 percent in 2018 alone. However, that could be because the company, once a small, woman-led startup, has been steadily pivoting away from historical feminism since it was purchased by Mattel in 1998. A quick glance at the American Girl website shows that Kirsten and Molly are nowhere to be found, and have been replaced by MaryEllen, a 1950s girl whose accessories include a kitchen, and Julie, a 1970s flower child with a bathroom for an accompanying play set.
The Fast Company profile of the company says that the goal of the changes to the American Girl brand is to keep up with evolving children’s tastes. And what kids want now, apparently, are Instagrammable experiences, like spa days for dolls. For example, at the American Girl flagship stores parents can now pay even more money to have stickers both applied to and then removed from their child’s $90 doll:
“These experiences create new ways for children to interact with their doll, and they also create an entirely new revenue stream. For $10 customers can get their doll’s hair styled and for $15, they can give their doll a spa day, complete with cucumber stickers for her eyes and a fake face mask.”
American Girl also now sells dolls with no stories attached, like newborns called Bitty Babies and a Truly Me boy doll, which is just a miniature guy in a Polo shirt. But by doing too much, the company seems to be doing not enough. Millennial parents nostalgic for the aspirational, yet educational dolls of their childhood aren’t in love with American Girl’s 21st-century makeover, and kids don’t seem to particularly care about the expensive customizable dolls since similar products are easily acquired elsewhere. In the first quarter of 2019, sales dropped 32 percent compared to the first quarter of 2018. And while the brand still makes historical dolls, like Melody, a black doll from the Civil Rights era, the efforts are a bit lost amid doll spas and unrelated products.
With millennial nostalgia driving a resurgence in so many brands and franchises that seemed dead, from Care Bears to Sonic the Hedgehog, it really is bizarre and a bit sad that the brand responsible for teaching so many ’80s and ’90s kids about American history can’t find a way to stay relevant in a political climate where those lessons are perhaps more necessary than ever before.