Why American Girl Dolls Are Starring in Viral History Memes

The popular posts call for characters who witnessed the Salem Witch Trials, JFK’s assassination and other historical events

Illustration of American Girl dolls living through major historical moments
The memes place their subjects in situations ranging from historically significant to hilariously obscure, including the Battle of Lexington, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and more. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via American Girl, Wikimedia Commons under public domain, Freepik

When American Girl, the toy company known for its deeply researched, accessory-toting line of historical dolls, announced the rerelease of six beloved fictional characters—several of whom had previously been discontinued—last summer, fans flooded social media with fond memories and plans to buy replacements for well-worn childhood dolls.

Some doll owners extolled the virtues of Kit Kittredge, a cub reporter whose story is set during the Great Depression, while others praised Addy Walker, who escapes slavery during the Civil War and was the company’s first Black character. Still others highlighted Felicity Merriman, a feisty tomboy from colonial Virginia, and Samantha Parkington, a prim and proper Victorian girl.

“We’ve honestly been blown away [by the response],” Julie Parks, American Girl’s director of public relations, told Smithsonian magazine in June 2021. “... We’re really humbled by this opportunity to not only [see] how we’ve impacted the lives of so many girls in a positive way but [also] to inspire a new generation.”

A year after American Girl’s 35th anniversary extravaganza brought the company back into the nostalgia-fueled limelight, its characters are once again popping up on social media feeds. This time around, writes Valeriya Safronova for the New York Times, the dolls are the stars of memes set during “other historical dramas, many of them veering into the absurd.”

The formula goes like this: “We need an American Girl doll who…” lived through situations ranging from historically significant to hilariously obscure: who was on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; who went down with the Titanic; who survived the Great Molasses Flood of 1919; who witnessed Pope Gregory IX declare war on cats in 1233.

Popularized by such Instagram accounts as @hellicity_merriman, @juuliealbright and @klit.klittredge, the memes feature both historical and modern dolls (a separate line known as “Truly Me”). Characters don period-appropriate attire while standing in front of tailor-made backdrops: A doll who was “on the Mayflower in 1620 but fell off,” for instance, wears a modest cap, a petticoat and an apron, while a toga-clad doll who escaped from Pompeii appears alongside a painting of Mount Vesuvius erupting in 79 C.E. The characters’ “blank yet slightly knowing half-smiles [dominate] the images,” notes Jessica Grose for the Times.

In addition to historical content, meme creators are also drawing from more recent headlines, including a container ship that blocked the Suez Canal last year and actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars. Pop culture and early 2000s nostalgia abound, with posts paying tribute to Easy Bake Ovens, Britney Spears, the Twilight series, Mean Girls and more.

Barrett Adair, who runs the @hellicity_merriman Instagram account with a friend, tells the Daily Beast’s Ilana Kaplan that the page’s followers are mainly women between the ages of 18 and 40.

American Girl is “a brand that they are deeply familiar with,” she says. “The hilarity and the relatability of seeing these characters that they grew up with in situations that are more relatable to their problems as an adult woman in 2022 [is] really what strikes a chord for people.”

Speaking with HuffPost’s Ruth Etiesit Samuel, Lydia, the 24-year-old behind the Kit-inspired Instagram, attributes the memes’ success to the “unprecedented” nature of the current moment—a reality reflected in posts about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the January 6 hearings and other pressing political issues.

“The whole gimmick of American Girl is you pick a girl, and she’s living through a historical time period where something important is happening. You create a doll that represents a girl from that era,” Lydia says. “The 2020s feels like a historical era; it feels like we’re living through something big. … [A] lot of people are latching on to the idea of what an American Girl who lives in 2020 might be or look like.”

The overwhelming response to the American Girl memes speaks to the brand’s enduring resonance in popular culture. Founded by educator and entrepreneur Pleasant Rowland in 1986, the company quickly won a loyal following for its painstakingly researched, relatable line of historical dolls. Each girl was accompanied by a series of books fleshing out her backstory, as well as historically accurate clothing, furniture and accessories.

Instead of shying away from difficult subjects in American history, American Girl addressed them through the lens of its 8- to 11-year-old characters. Addy is born enslaved but makes a daring escape to freedom with her mother, while Nellie O’Malley, Samantha’s best friend, is forced to take a factory job to support her family. Pioneer girl Kirsten Larson befriends a Swedish immigrant who dies of cholera on the journey to America.

“[This] doesn’t diminish events, but instead just [offers a] point of view on them that children can understand,” Alexandra Piper, a program manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told Smithsonian last year. “… American Girl doesn't condescend to children, but treats them as their own historical agents.”

Educators were using American Girl dolls to teach history long before this latest meme resurgence. Public historian Rebekkah Rubin, for example, runs the Instagram account @iamexcessivelydollverted, which features staged photos of dolls discussing pivotal moments in history, from Juneteenth to the women’s suffrage movement. The characters also teach Rubin’s nearly 4,500 followers about various cultural traditions, including Passover and Diwali.

The new memes may not adopt quite such a straightforward approach to history, but their underlying purpose is largely the same: “Those of us who grew up with [the dolls] are still trying to use them to understand the world, putting our thoughts and ideals into their mouths in fun and subversive” ways, Tara Strauch, a historian at Centre College in Kentucky, tells the Times’ Grose.

“Within the world of these memes, there is nothing the world won’t throw at an American Girl doll, and there is nothing she can’t do,” writes Safronova for the Times. “She, a representation of the childhoods of countless girls, can succeed where others have failed.”

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