The Washington Post

We need an American Girl doll who can survive this moment


Ihaven’t thought about dolls this much since I left grade school. Not just any dolls, but American Girl dolls: the wide-eyed, chiclet-toothed, meticulous­ly backstorie­d creations of textbook writer Pleasant Rowland, whose historythe­med dolls and expansive collection­s of books, clothing and accessorie­s had millennial and Gen Z girls in a chokehold throughout their formative years.

And not the American Girl dolls as I knew them in the ’90s and early 2000s, wholesome avatars of our country’s past — Felicity Merriman, for instance, the colonial-era tomboy who refused to take tea with Tories on the eve of the American Revolution, or Samantha Parkington, the rich orphan who ate petit fours and learned to live her values during the Progressiv­e Era. Today, my social media feeds and group chats are being flooded with images of American Girls remixed into memes: hyper-specific and often bawdy, a mix of winking pop culture references, uncomforta­bly personal revelation­s and more obscure historical events.

One format is particular­ly popular: “We need an American Girl who . . .” The second clause is limited only by imaginatio­n: “is obsessed with twilight”; “has taken plan b in the parking lot of a taco bell”; “tried to do her own bikini wax and cried”; “whose gay awakening was the britney and madonna kiss at the 2003 VMA’S”; “who survived the great molasses flood of 1919.”

The AG resurgence is ironic and chaotic, a revealing commentary on how young women are coping with living in — to put it mildly — trying times. The memes are representa­tive of the deadpan, absurdist humor that has become a generation­al hallmark. Millennial­s and Gen Zers aren’t kids anymore, and our childhood favorites are being asked to grow up, too.

There’s no mistaking that the national mood overall is dark. But among young people especially, the prevalent feeling is one of futility: that nothing in this country is working and there’s no real way to fix it. Mass shootings are a common occurrence, and climate change continues apace; the economy seems poised to go under yet again. The Supreme Court has proved itself to be hopelessly partisan, and Congress seems polarized in a way that even the most diligent voting seems unlikely to resolve.

So how to respond? Creativity, nostalgia, dark jokes and a little light dissociati­on. This moment feels awful — wouldn’t it be nice if this doll from my childhood could experience it instead of me?

Thus, “We need an American Girl Doll who didn’t get a monkeypox vaccine appointmen­t,” referencin­g New York City’s botched attempt to get ahead of the next potential pandemic. We need a doll who is “never gonna financiall­y recover from this”; one who curses conservati­ve justices or who (a personal favorite) “had to keep writing her silly little emails while watching a coup attempt on live tv.”

“The old American Girls were teacher’s pets, student body presidents. And no one wants to be that anymore. We’re all really tired,” one Gen Z-er told me. “These American girls, in these memes, are realistic . . . they’re about the everygirl, the downbad girl, the actual American girl — the girls that are a little depressed, and kind of want to laugh but don’t want to laugh too loud.”

We need an American Girl who takes her SSRIS.

But even as the dolls are repurposed as vectors of dissatisfa­ction, their underlying associatio­ns might help keep their fans, old and new, from hitting rock bottom.

The original American Girl products were created to teach young girls about historical periods marked by upheaval and change. Addy Walker escaped from slavery. Kit Kittredge lived through the Great Depression. Molly Mcintire planted a victory garden and collected scrap metal as she waited out World War II.

Those periods passed, and presumably this one will, too.

Even if the moment feels scary, American Girls always come through it in the end. They usually do so having solved problems and learned important lessons — about friendship, bravery, the ravages of turn-of-the-century factory life — along the way.

So maybe these jaundiced reclamatio­ns of childhood dolls can be read as an expression of optimism, however faint. While we are living through a painful moment in history, there’s a good chance that we’ll make it to the other side.

And in the meantime, we’ll meme ourselves through it.

 ?? Ilya S. Savenok/getty IMAGES for American Girl ?? American Girl dolls in New York in 2021, now appearing in memes to light the way through bleak political times.
Ilya S. Savenok/getty IMAGES for American Girl American Girl dolls in New York in 2021, now appearing in memes to light the way through bleak political times.

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