The Working Class Substitute to the American Girl Dolls

Samantha and Eddie after Samantha has fallen out of a tree, from from Chapter 1 of Meet Samantha by Dan Andreasen.

What I love and simultaneously resent most about sites and online magazines, like Bustle, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and The Toast, is how they fuel my childhood nostalgia. It’s like kids born in the 1980s are retroactively trying to create online fan cultures over fandoms and cultural artifacts long past their expiration date (which is really what fandom is all about, Harry Potter fanatics).

Buzzfeed’s numerous listicles about ’90s boybands, beauty products, fashion, toys, television shows, and more are excellent fodder for Friday afternoons at work when I no longer have a single fuck to give and the weekend is breathing down my neck. The Toast takes such nostalgia to a whole new level with witty reimaginings of such ’90s girl literary staples as The Babysitter’s Club and Anne of Green Gables. And, Bustle, fortunately, won’t let me forget the Golden Age of Figure Skating.  

This nostalgia also won’t let me forget a particular longing that I had for the highly coveted American Girl Doll.

American Girl catalogue spread featuring Samantha's birthday party set, image via Ebay
The birthday tea party set. I wanted this one the most.

The American Girl Dolls (AGD) were a Gen Y status symbol, and you could never just have one of the dolls. You had to have all the accessories, too, but with the dolls themselves costing around $80 to $100, the chance of getting one, much less their numerous accessories (which included a wooden chest for about $350) was not-gonna-happen. My mother’s exact response: “Keep dreaming.”

Which I did. I read all the books and looked forward to gazing with unrequited longing at the catalogs that showed up in the mailbox. My favorite American Girl was Samantha. Samantha was most every girl’s favorite, because she had the most and prettiest accessories. Felicity was a close second because she came with a horse. In fact, I only vaguely recall the books, but I vividly recall the catalogs, because American Girl is a franchise and don’t you forget it!

A franchise to remind us how rampant consumerism now defines status. The girls who got the AGDs were the girls whose parents bought them brand new BMWs for their 16th birthdays—or so I imagine because none of my friends were rich. But there was an alternative for us! The Babysitter’s Club dolls:

The Babysitter Club (BSC) dolls were a little taller and lankier than the AGDs. They came with a single outfit, and I got them as awards for making good grades, which was an excellent motivator for me. I eventually racked up the entire group with the exception of Jesse, because this was in the days before Amazon and because racism (just ask someone in a small town trying to find a black Barbie). At forty bucks a pop (I think, they seemed expensive to ’90s me), the BSC dolls were dolls you could actually play with. Your mom wasn’t going to insist you keep them in their box because they would “be worth something someday,” like the Breyer horses and Beanie Babies that now sit in the windows of local junk shops. This meant you could throw them over fences and traipse across cow-manured pastures to your neighbor’s house for playtime.

As for the lack of accessories, we didn’t need no stinking accessories. We were resourceful. We cut up our own socks which turned out to be just the right size for crops tops and miniskirts—the height of late ’90s style, thanks Spice Girls—and the occasional tube dress. We cut Stacey and Mallory’s hair in such a way that either one could pass as a girl with a stylish bob or a well coiffed bowl cut if we needed boys.

I think there is something to be said about your resources being limited and how imagination can expand from that. If I had had Samantha or Felicity and their numerous accessories, play and games would have been influenced and constrained by these many items (and your mother’s constant reminder about just how much said doll and accessories cost) and the narratives of the stories in which these accessories appeared. Instead, my friends and I sought alternatives to our concern for more accessories by creating our own. While both doll collections were centered on book series, my friends and I crafted new stories and characters for our dolls that status dolls of bygone eras like the AGDs would not have been able to fit. I imagine in some ways our play was a little freer and probably rougher, which is important for girls.   

The AGDs have managed to survive in newer (and fortunately more diverse) iterations, while the BSC dolls can only be located on eBay and even then at a significantly lower cost than “vintage” AGDs. When you can find an American Girl Samantha doll in mint condition, starting at around $200, maybe your mother’s admonishments were right. I found a BSC Claudia doll for $28, still in the package. Out of the package, she’s a mere $12. My BSC dolls, which disappeared long ago, wouldn’t be worth a penny as my girlfriends and I chopped their hair, used nail polish on them, and generally battered and bruised them (and one of the family dogs ate the hands and feet off of my modified, gender-ambiguous Mallory, which is all kinds of problematic).

The American Girl Dolls have value; the BSC, not so much. The BSC were already middle class to lower middle class fictional girls looking for some extra bucks anyway, while the AGDs, okay while Samantha, were, well, rich (hence the numerous accessories). That being said, I imagine that I would probably still have my Samantha doll, stashed somewhere, unused, because I (or my parents) would have been too concerned about her value to let me really play with her, and because of this perceived value, I would still be hoarding her, rather than just selling the damn thing on eBay to cover one of my monthly student loan payments.

Ginnis Tonik

Ginnis Tonik

Smashing the patriarchy with glitter, pink lipstick, and cowboy boots. You can follow her on Instagram @ginnistonik