I’m always on the lookout for play in everyday social media trends and breaking news headlines. When these spaces intersect, great examples emerge and illustrate the complex meaning and cultural function of play and playthings in our daily lives.
Take as example: protesting crowds gathered following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which upended decades of legal protections for abortion established in Roe v. Wade (1973). Among the protest signs outside the Supreme Court Building, a pink sign read “American Girl? Wish I wasn’t,” mimicking the logo of the popular Mattel doll line created by Pleasant Company in 1986.
As a historian and researcher, I couldn’t help but dig into the contexts at play. In 2021, The Strong inducted American Girl Dolls into the National Toy Hall of Fame in recognition of their longevity, success, and unique brand of what creator Pleasant Rowland called “chocolate cake with vitamins”—weaving together traditional doll play and dress up with companion chapter books filled with historical backstories centering young female protagonists. Although the brand features customizable dolls, their historic lines such as 1904 Samantha continue to spark nostalgic play on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram through the older consumers who grew up on the books and dolls in the late 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
In particular, American Girl Doll social media fandom demonstrates how past play is reworked for humor, identity formation, and reframing contemporary news events, such as first reactions from the dolls on the Supreme Court ruling. Protest signs echoed this social media play. Captured in New York Times coverage, another colorful sign read “We Need An American Girl Doll Who Dissents!!” with an image of Julie Albright, a BeForever doll whose story takes place in the 1970s. The sign references the popular “We Need an American Girl Doll Who” memes and tweets, which first began in 2019, but spread across multiple platforms in 2022. Invoking Julie on the poster highlights doll knowledge to convey absurdity and irony: a fictional tween in 1974 had access to greater privacy and medical protections and need not dissent compared to the 2022 protestors, an opinion also conveyed in a circulated meme (above).
News outlets such as The New York Times and HuffPost noted the generational nostalgia at work with past childhood play bearing on the present. How do material playthings of our past inform current identity-making and play? That doll play can shape identity formation is not unique to the brand, but there is a pop culture persistence in linking personal affinities to a specific American Girl Doll akin to a personality quiz. The 2021 Today article “Were you a Kit or a Samantha? What your American Girl doll said about you” highlights this inclination by adult fans toward linking their past doll play with their personal identities. The “We Need an American Girl Doll Who” meme leans towards individuality too. This personalization also served as a primary selling point for Pleasant Company as their catalogs encouraged young consumers to dress up and roleplay as their doll of choice.
More fascinating is the insistence that American Girl Doll play is itself radical. This assertion about the brand emerges from vocal child-turned-adult fans who credit the dolls and books for sparking their progressive worldviews; the chapter book stories often found the various girls coming face-to-face with historical inequities in their given time periods and making tough, brave choices. A 2013 article from The Atlantic argues that the older dolls and their accompanying chapter books provided “a point of entry for girls who have matured into thoughtful, critical, empowered citizens” in the 21st century. For some, American Girl Doll play is shorthand for an informed social perspective that began in childhood.
Without dismissing the fandom, the company’s noteworthy storylines, or the historical attentiveness invested in the doll line, I highlight these attempts to affix an innate radicalism to the doll to point out the messiness of how play meaning is negotiated and wrestled over. The same month as the Supreme Court ruling, many fans of 1944 Molly rejoiced at what they believed was a PRIDE-month Molly announcement by the brand’s Instagram. Although American Girl attempted to clarify, the incident revealed divisions within brand’s collector community on Instagram. Using the dolls as symbolic stand-ins, some collectors produced supportive and self-identifying LGBTQI+-themed posts while others promoted homophobia. In real time, the dolls and this play served as interpretation battleground over meaning.
The late cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall would say there is no escaping that meaning is always interpretation with levels of plausibility but forever caught in power struggles attempting to define it. That means our job in the world is to look closer: for whom can American Girl Dolls serve as a radical, protest symbol? Pleasant T. Rowland’s intended meaning for the dolls and books was to illustrate how “growing up in America is, has been, and can always be an experience to treasure.” Many protesting fans, therefore, engage in oppositional readings of the dolls yet may not question how and why their identification formed so easily. It took almost a decade for first Black doll, Addy Walker, to join the brand’s historic line and over two decades more for next one, Melody. For Black fans, playing with formerly enslaved Addy and reading her story always created negotiated experiences.
So what do American Girl Dolls say about us? Because their meaning is unfixed, American Girl Dolls can “mean” what the contexts that we—longtime fans or first timers—create when making sense of childhood playthings, our play, and ourselves.