The Washington Post
American Girl meets AOL
A new pair of dolls in the toy line are set in the days of grunge, the Spice Girls and dial-up internet connections
If you, a millennial woman who loved American Girl dolls in your youth, were a bit apoplectic to discover that the brand is now selling a “historical” doll whose story is set in 1999 — because how could the ’ 90s be ancient history when they only took place, what, five years ago? No? I’m sorry, you’re telling me it was, in fact, 24 years ago? — well, a real-life American girl will set you straight right away.
“I’ve never actually learned a lot about the ’90s,” says Molly Prokop, 9, of Southlake, Tex. “I know it’s like, 30 years back, but I don’t know, it kind of feels like 50 years back.”
“It’s pretty cool to learn about a long time ago with toys and dolls,” says Emilie Wright, 12, of Edmond, Okla.
Yes, a long time ago was a decade when the coolest thing a girl could have was a
collection of dolls with outfits and books designed to teach them about the olden days. In the early ’90s, the company sold four history-focused American Girl dolls: Samantha Parkington, of the Victorian era; Felicity Merriman, who lived in Colonial Williamsburg; Kirsten Larson, a Swedish immigrant to Minnesota in the 1850s; and Molly Mcintire, who lived during World War II.
“If you read the books, you realize they’re so much like you,” says Lindsay Brison, 34, who had a Samantha doll when she was younger and is now mom to three American Girl-owning daughters in Atlanta. “They design the girls to show you that Samantha lived in the 1900s, but [her story] is still pertinent now.”
The company later expanded into more diverse dolls — Josefina Montoya, a Mexican girl living in Santa Fe during the early 1800s, and Addy Walker, an enslaved girl who escaped and fled to Philadelphia — and also other time periods from a long time ago, including the War of 1812, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement.
But somehow, suddenly, the time of the girls who first adored and owned American Girl dolls has become a long time ago. Those girls, who should probably be using retinol creams by now, and might want to consider adding more fiber to their diets. Those girls, who have girls of their own, these days. Those girls, who scroll through American Girl memes after their daughters go to bed. Between this, “Titanic” turning 25 and wide-legged jeans coming back in style, culture is a memento mori minefield for children of the ’90s lately.
“It just makes you feel old” to learn that there is an American Girl based on your childhood, says Brison. “But it also makes you want to feel cool that finally your generation is represented.” Her girls will “get to see things that we grew up playing with.”
Things like the Tamagotchi, an inflatable couch, a Pizza Hut Book It coupon, and a desktop computer with a CD-ROM and dial-up modem noises. Isabel and Nicki Hoffman, the two new dolls (twins!) are Seattleites on the cusp of Y2K. Isabel loves pop music and the Spice Girls, while Nicki is into skateboarding and grunge. Their pets are named Blossom and Buffy, after the two pivotal ’90s TV characters.
But the artifacts of the ’90s are perplexing to a 2023 gradeschooler. On a recent Saturday, Brison is trying in vain to explain a symbol on the doll’s necklace to 7-year-old Emma Kate and 5year-old Liza.
“It’s called a yin yang, and do you see how its black and white curves together?” she says. “That was super popular. We had those on necklaces. We had them on rings, stick it on a shirt. It was totally ’90s, Emma Kate.”
“I don’t know. It’s cool,” says Emma Kate, not fully understanding why a 30-something woman’s eyes might light up at the sight of this tiny hieroglyphic of youth.
Meanwhile, in Mccook, Neb., Alex Murillo, 9, is trying to parse another cryptic symbol, one that appears in the graffiti on doll Nicki’s miniature skate park ($175).
“A circle and, like, a line and two lines. I don’t know what it’s called,” says Murillo to her mother, Olivia Johnson, 28.
“A peace sign!” says Johnson, who explained to her daughter that she used to doodle peace signs on all of her notebooks and her arms. “Apparently she didn’t know what that was until today.” Alex’s doll, from the “Truly Me” collection, doesn’t have a historical component — but Julie Albright, an American Girl doll whose story is set in the ’70s, has a peace sign on her shirt. (Gen X, you have a doll, too — Courtney Moore, a Southern Californian in 1986.)
And in Oklahoma, Emilie Wright’s mother, Heidi, 38, is showing her a picture of the dolls’ computer-and-desk set ($145), which features a massive monitor that Emilie cannot — cannot! — get over.
“The computer, it’s huge!” says Emilie, amid peals of laughter. “I was wondering what those drawers down there are for.”
She means the CD-ROM drive and hard disk drive, two features she has never known a computer to have in her lifetime. Heidi explains to her how CDS could hold music or programs (“like apps”), how hard disks could store documents (“like a USB”) and how one time, to play a game, she had to install it on her computer via seven disks (“There was no cloud, no browser to play games in”). The conversation turns to more complicated topics, such as how to access the internet.
“There was internet then?” says Emilie. And now Heidi is trying to explain the panic over the Y2K computer glitch, which features prominently in the twins’ book and is utterly incomprehensible to a present-day 12year-old.
“I honestly think it’s ridiculous,” says Emilie. “I just think it’s funny what people believe sometimes.”
The dolls’ computer plays four sounds, and one of those is the melodic gnashing of a dial-up modem initiating connection. It elicits a Pavlovian response in any ’90s kid, but to a child of the 2020s, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.
“It’s loud, scary and noisy,” says Alex. If she had to hear it every time she wanted to use the internet, “I don’t think I could handle it.”
Grunge got a similar response. “It’s just so loud. I don’t like it,” says Molly Prokop, proud owner of a Molly doll, when her mother Hilary, 46, plays a snippet of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for her. The Spice Girls, doll Isabel’s favorite, get higher marks. Asked how old the Spice Girls are now, Molly guesses “50, 60ish maybe?” (Ginger Spice is 50, and the rest are nearing it.) Molly does not know what it means to burn a CD. (“I think you mold them together?” she guesses.)
There are a few important historical inconsistencies. Isabel isn’t exactly the most ’90s name, as some millennials have pointed out — shouldn’t she be Ashley or Jessica? And her outfit appears to be out of Cher Horowitz’s closet from the movie “Clueless,” which came out in 1995. By 1999, everyone had already moved on to flare jeans and spaghetti-strap tank tops. Also, grunge was over by then.
But two of the dolls’ accessories captivated modern-day American Girls and their parents alike. All of the girls interviewed wanted a Tamagotchi, the digital pocket “pets” that became a craze in 1997, a miniature version of which is sold in a set of Isabel’s accessories ($50). And the “Book It” Pizza Hut accessory kit ($32) inspired the most nostalgia for their mothers.
“The red cup — I mean, that was really on point,” says Hilary Prokop.
Look, Mattel knew exactly what it was doing here. The ’90s are trendy again, and the millennials who lived through them the first time have a bit of a Peter Pan complex. But they also have disposable income.
“I think it used to be that, you know, the accessories supported the stories. And in this case, I feel like the accessories are the story,” says Prokop.
Who are these dolls for? Little girls, but really, their mothers, who took their dolls to the American Girl “hospital” for repairs, who lovingly brushed their hair, who still read think pieces on the Samantha aesthetic, or Molly’s potential sexuality or what their choice of girlhood doll foretold for their adult personality. (This author, past owner of a Felicity, was indeed a Horse Girl who “grew up to have an affinity for lovely things [and] a possibly inflated sense of your own uniqueness,” as the Hairpin predicted.)
Her daughter is getting a little old for dolls, says Johnson. But she might get Isabel and Nicki anyway.
“I think I’m going to buy them because I want them for myself,” she says. “Having those dolls would kind of just give me a piece of my childhood back.”