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How American Girl dolls became a part of American culture

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What was your favorite American Girl doll, the one you identified with?

ALLISON HORROCKS: My name is Allison Horrocks, and I am still a Molly McIntire.

MARY MAHONEY: I'm Mary Mahoney, and I'm definitely a Molly.

SUMMERS: That's Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney, two historians and friends. And they're talking about the American Girl doll Molly McIntire, one of the original 18-inch dolls released by Pleasant Company. She is a 9-year-old World War II patriot whose father is away at war. Horrocks and Mahoney host a popular podcast that dives into the historical fiction series, book by book, but also musings on today's pop culture like "The Bachelor" and deep conversations about which of the OG American Girl dolls may have been queer. Mahoney and Horrocks have also written a book. It is called "Dolls Of Our Lives: Why We Can't Quit American Girl." And when I talked with them recently, I had to ask how they first connected as adults over American Girl and figured out that it was a shared language.

HORROCKS: I think it may have been about Felicity...

MAHONEY: Yeah, probably.

HORROCKS: ...Which was a mistake.

MAHONEY: Which was a mistake. We had no memory - one of the things we bonded over was just how clueless we were about the actual plots of those books because, you know, so much of memory is rehearsed. And I think we definitely were rehearsing a performance that would - had no relationship to fact about these books. Because I remember saying like, oh, yeah, wasn't Felicity in Boston, and I think she worked for John Adams? And Allison was like, yeah, co-signing this. We were completely wrong. She lived in Virginia. And we, you know, had none of the facts, but we were laughing so much just reminiscing about it.

Then I remember we were invited to someone's birthday party in grad school. And I don't know what possessed us to do this. We were both recovering separately from a stomach bug. But we decided, unprompted, that we were going to gift this person an American Girl book that we wrote that was going to be based on their research area, which was the Reformation, which, sidebar, we know nothing about.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

MAHONEY: And, of course, as true authors - you know, really selfless - we wrote ourselves into the book almost immediately. And this book that was supposed to be about our friend quickly became about us. And it was - it's deeply unhinged. It's buried deep in our Google Drive. No one will ever see this, we hope. But, you know, we were laughing so much. And I think that's really, you know, what it's meant to me is like - it's an opportunity just for so much laughing and fun and silliness. And, you know, it was exactly the same for me as a kid. But, you know, let's hope I have a better vocabulary now. Who knows? But, I mean, that's what it's been for me.

SUMMERS: What about you, Allison?

HORROCKS: Yeah, I imagine that book will surface at some point. I think it's probably better than we remember.

MAHONEY: I don't know, Allison.

HORROCKS: Honestly, I remember I tied it with ribbon to make it look fancy, so that was pretty cool. So I think part of it is that...

MAHONEY: We did put Lisa Frank stickers on it.

HORROCKS: We did, in true Reformation style. It's definitely that shared language. And I got really afraid when we started reading Molly because the books - she's, you know, if you're saying for years that this person is a mirror and then you're not really loving what you're seeing in that mirror - I've decided to kind of, like, begrudgingly still love Molly the book character, but more affiliate with the Molly that I've created in my mind through my own doll collection. What's given it more stamina for me is the newer characters we've covered, the more in-depth stuff that American Girl has been doing.

SUMMERS: For folks who are not as immersed in the world of American Girl as the two of you are, can you just give us a CliffsNotes version of how this brand came to be and Pleasant Rowland, the woman who is behind American Girl?

MAHONEY: So Pleasant Rowland was someone who was an educational entrepreneur. And there's a lot of really wild profiles of her during this time, which really bear out sort of the values that you might see embedded in American Girl when it was founded in the '80s, including a focus on both empowering women - that's how she understood the feminist movement - but not wanting to lose what she called the basic femininity of women. And after that career path, she goes into developing a literacy program, which was very successful. And then created American Girl in 1986, after a very 1980s experience of going to the mall and trying to buy a toy for her niece and being, frankly, appalled by the toys on offer, especially for girls.

And that same year, she went on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg. And if you've not been to that museum, it's a great living history museum. She kind of had what Oprah would call an aha moment and, you know, basically dreamed up this product where she could tell stories that put girls at the center of different moments in American history that both empowered them through play but then taught them a lot and created opportunities to bond with people in their lives, family members.

SUMMERS: I mean, your book and your podcast gets into some of the things that are really messy about American Girl. I mean, these stories are so meaningful and resonant for us even in our 30s. And yet at times, American Girl hasn't felt accessible to everyone. I mean, I'm thinking about the fact that these dolls are really expensive. Not everyone can afford to own them, and that means that some of the magic doesn't get passed to everyone. Can we talk about that a little bit?

MAHONEY: Definitely. That's a really important point. There's so many different areas where you see that showing up in the brand. One is sort of the original tone-deafness of some of the stories they tell. So the first books we read on the show were the Felicity books, in which her family claims ownership over enslaved people. And yet it's built into the story that you're not supposed to view her as racist because she has a Black friend. And, you know, that's tough to read now. It's sort of unfathomable how that happened in it in the early '90s when it was published.

But you can also see issues of accessibility. So along issues of race, like, if you were a person of color, what are you supposed to do with the fact that the first doll that looks like you is an enslaved person that you're invited to buy? And we've heard from a lot of listeners who, you know, as Black girls, Black women, have had to negotiate and renegotiate the relationship to a character that was really meaningful to them and continues to be. And as we talked about before, there's the economic barrier of the fact that this stuff has never been cheap, and that's a throughline.

SUMMERS: I mean, the two of you have spent years at this point immersing yourselves in everything American Girl and thinking critically about what, for many of us, is a formative childhood experience. For each of you, how has this changed your personal relationship with American Girl and your relationship to these stories?

HORROCKS: This is Allison. American Girl was definitely a thing I shared with my family and one or two friends as a child. And now I have, you know, Discord and Facebook groups and different communities where I can say, you know, I bought an 18-inch horse today and there's people who will, you know, celebrate that with me. So the stories, sometimes they can feel, you know, like, flat and fixed in space and time. But the stuff - like, I know I can do stuff with that. And that's very exciting to me in a way that it was even when I was 8. So that's kind of a thing for me that hasn't changed so much.

MAHONEY: As an adult who now knows I'm a queer person and did not know that as a child reading these books, it's been fun and empowering to see queer-coded characters and to read queerness into the books, you know, in the hopes of finding more representation in this brand that continues to mean a lot to me.

SUMMERS: Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks, thanks so much.

MAHONEY: Thank you.

HORROCKS: Thank you.

SUMMERS: Their book, "Dolls Of Our Lives: Why We Can't Quit American Girl," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM PETTY SONG, "AMERICAN GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.