American Girl Dolls: Enriching Play or Consumerist Cult?

We are headed into the city this morning to visit American Girl Place. My 8 year old daughter is into the historic dolls, in particular Samantha, and she has been waiting for months.  She loves having tea parties, taking care of babies, and playing school with Samantha. I am so thankful that she and her friends get jazzed up about the historic American Girl dolls instead of having “crushes” and watching Jessie. She has developed patience by saving her money or waiting for Christmas to outfit her doll. And the historic dolls’ stories have boosted her knowledge of history.

However, one look at the above photo from the American Girl Place website, and I can see why parents criticize the American Girl empire as a consumerist, materialist cult, designed to suck girls in one doll, then one accessory, then one outfit, then one fully-furnished dollhouse at a time. We have had to steer away from the single-minded obsession with more, more, more.

All in all, the clothes and accessories are lovely. The dolls are high quality, but they are designed to be played with, unlike the fragile Madame Alexander dolls of my childhood. And when an American Girl doll’s story is presented in a historically- and culturally-accurate context, centered around values, my daughter gains a whole lot more from Samantha than she would from Barbie or Bratz.

So off we go. Samantha will get a new hairstyle and a new outfit tomorrow in the glitzy doll palace downtown, then we will happily follow her back to the Victorian era where she belongs.

"Thank you for all your years of blogging. It has been such fun and a ..."

A Final Post
"Just for anyone researching this subject, I teach elementary music and most pop songs, lyrically ..."

Pop Music and Kids
"MA, it took me forever to comment on this post, but wanted to thank you ..."

Christmas to-do list
"Way to go, MA! That's the spirit, just one step at a time. I started ..."

Christmas to-do list

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nice thoughts here. I agree very much that there is a fine line. I do think, however, that the American girl dolls are much better than the other options out there on the market. I’ve tried to look at is as one good investment, instead of lots of cheap ones. I have used it to teach my daughters about saving up to purchase one higher quality thing, as opposed to lots of small cheap things that break, are easily lost, and have little value.

  • Kat0427

    Have fun in the city today, JM! I like your thoughts here, especially about patience and waiting. I think it’s great that you have decided beforehand what your parameters will be in terms of making a purchase, so that everyone can enjoy the visit rather than being stressed due to uncertain expectations.

  • Kathleen

    I feel the same way about the American Girl Dolls. Compared to all the crap out there, American Girl Dolls are really innocent. My 7 year old has been dying for an American Doll and we told her that we will buy her one when she memorizes the Poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Kind of mean, but I think she can do it.

  • Kathy

    As a social studies teacher and the mommy of 3 daughters, I love the American girl series. Not only do they learn history within context of someone in their age bracket, but the American Girl movies we have seen demonstrate kindness, overcoming adversity and consequences for one’s actions. I think, like all things, if put into balance American Girl dolls can be a great teaching tool on so many levels. I wish that they wouldn’t retire dolls – as those eras in history are just as important as any other.

    As for the accessories, it makes it a lot easier for us when relatives ask for gift ideas for our daughters.

    Hope you have a fun day at American Girl Store – we have enjoyed our visits there. A fun girls day – or even family day as my husband finds the store interesting too.

  • knitlet

    I saved up half for my doll when I was in third grade and my parents paid the other half. This was in the 80’s when they cost (gasp!) $68. It took me FOREVER to save up and I still have my Molly doll. My mom sewed us matching dresses and one year my mom and dad worked together to build and upholster her red bed for my Christmas present. I know I had her backpack and one other “real” outfit, but most of what Molly had we made. The retail stores didn’t even exist then, so for me there’s no need to make it the main point of your doll experience. They really are beautiful dolls and most of my memories are working with my mom to make things for her.

  • Kathleen

    Sorry, I know this is a little late. I wanted to know what the builders thought of the newer American Girls, I grew up with the originals, but thought I’d ask if any body liked one of the new history dolls in particular for her virtues or courage or story.

  • Juris Mater

    Great question, Kathleen. I will be interested in the response. We try hard to ignore all of the dolls post-Molly : )

  • Frances Walters

    I had never even thought about my daughter playing with these American Girl dolls until now. Navigating historical/educational toys and dolls for my daughter who is half-Korean is going to be a challenge! I am glad to have read this post because I am going to need all the time I can get to contemplate what we introduce to her (although I know that she will encounter and want things that she finds/sees on her own). The Asian-American doll selection is quite limited, and I know she does not need all of her toys to reflect that side of her, but it is still disappointing to see that we have not come that far since I was a child. Asian dolls generally still have that requisite red Chinese New Years dress to wear and have “almond-shaped” eyes. It really turns me off to the American Girl dolls to see that they could not do better–I know there are historical limitations on the stories an Asian American doll can have, but it still seems they could go beyond what is there. Anyway, a lot to think about!

  • buildingcathedralstexasmommy

    I’m curious to hear how it went. Was it consumerism overload or a fun bonding experience?

  • Juris Mater

    It was awesome! M was so sweet–she got Samantha’s hair brushed out and then put into a fresh half-ponytail with a ribbon, then she shopped around for a while and bought Samantha an old-fashioned school desk so they can share “back to school” together. I was so proud of her for not being taken with the glam materialism. The American Girl Place stores are extremely well done. Yes, there’s plenty of opportunity for consumerist overload, but also plenty of space to have an innocent and magical girl-and-doll’s day out.

  • I guess it is not consumerism cult. I think it is one great
    way to teach the kids to save their allowances and be creative. Thanks anyway
    for sharing this information.