In her parents' kitchen, 15-year-old Teddie fills a stockpot with water. She places the detached head of an American Girl doll (whose neck strings allow for such blunt dismemberment) atop a towel in a bowl, pours a small amount of warm water in the neck opening, and steps back to wait. Once the vinyl is heated enough to melt slightly and become squishy, she takes a wooden spoon from a kitchen drawer and pops out the doll's eyes, laying them aside carefully — if they get any water on them, they'll turn silver — before adding special fabric dye to the boiling pot on the stove. There's no need to worry about the doll's precious locks — Teddie has already removed the wig with a metal spoon, sliding it underneath the cap until the old glue pops with a smack and the hair slides right off. When she's done, she can use simple crafting glue to keep another wig in place, or she'll leave the doll bald and open to a variety of changing looks.
"Remember, it's not my fault if you ruin your doll or get hurt," Teddie warns in a video on her YouTube channel, Sm0lDolls, as she shows viewers how to dye vinyl dolls. "Please, please, please ask your parents before you do any of this. I don't need any angry adults in my DMs." Sporting yellow cleaning gloves and wielding cooking tongs, she explains how to match the hue of each limb to the others based on how long it's left in the pot of dye.
Teddie cleans up a doll after dying it to a darker skin tone. | (Teddie/Courtesy Narratively)
Teddie is one of the many DIY doll artists showcasing her creations on YouTube and selling them on platforms like Instagram and Etsy. Some take their own classic American Girl dolls and coat their arms in faux tattoo sleeves or paint elaborate designs on their faces to mimic anime characters. Others will briefly "adopt" a fan's doll and return her with glossed lips or gothic eyeliner. Some simply enjoy documenting their adventures in toy redesign for a like-minded audience.
These artisans of synthetic hair and plastic skin gather in online communities like #dollstagram (Doll Instagram), #dolltube (Doll YouTube), and most prominently, #AGIG and #AGTube. ("AG" indicates anything and everything having to do with American Girl dolls.) The social media subculture of doll fans spans people of all ages, places, and careers. The members of Dollstagram are not only collectors and photographers but also fashion designers and tailors, makeup and miniaturist artists, videographers and YouTube personalities, and social media and marketing strategists. They're dedicated to their craft, and they showcase their work with pride — at least online.
"It's not like I go around telling everybody in the world about the stuff I do," says Faye, a 17-year-old Barbie and Bratz aficionado who co-hosts The DollCast podcast. Many of the regulars of Dollstagram are hesitant to post a photo with their faces or other identifying information, but they discuss their lives in captions, detailing how they covertly keep a doll next to them off camera while teaching over Zoom, or how they broke the news to their significant other that they have a vast collection of dolls.
Dizzi Ford, a 22-year-old college student who co-hosts The DollCast, shares their collection only with select friends. When Ford's unsuspecting mom discovered their glammed-up dolls one day, Ford, who uses both he and they pronouns, redirected the explanation to a friend in the know. "My best friend just told her straight-up, 'He doesn't play with them, he just takes photos of them. They make him feel comfortable.'" Ford's photography reaches more than 1,300 followers on Instagram, where Ford introduced a "mini me" doll this fall complete with a T-shirt that reads "Theater Kid."
Dizzi Ford's customized "mini me" doll. | (Dizzi Ford/Courtesy Narratively)
Among the more than 3.8 million Instagram posts tagged #dollstagram, the most popular are #AGIG photos: Photos of American Girl dolls new and secondhand, customized or pristine from the box, hard-to-find 1990s gems and popular 2010s dolls originally sold at the now-defunct Toys 'R' Us. Users recreate scenes from the doll characters' original chapter books or place them within modern pop culture recreations, from the period dresses of Hamilton to the heavy makeup of HBO's Euphoria. Anyone who grew up drawn to the allure of the American Girl catalog won't be surprised — the expensive, perfectly coiffed dolls have become part of the cultural iconography of girlhood.
Founded by schoolteacher Pleasant Rowland in 1986, American Girl was initially an educational tool designed to teach young girls about American history through dolls. The three original girls were Molly, a bespectacled tomboy who grows a victory garden in her Illinois backyard while her father is stationed in England during World War II; Samantha, a prim and proper orphan in 1904 upstate New York who is fascinated by her aunt's penchant for suffrage and is appalled by the discovery that her best friend is a child laborer; and Kirsten, an optimistic but naïve Swedish immigrant whose family carves out a home in the Minnesota Territory in 1864, displacing the friendly Sioux girl whom Kirsten sings birdsongs with. Throughout the 1990s, popular additions followed, including Addy, the company's first Black doll, in 1993, who was created by a panel of Black scholars of African-American history. Her story of escaping slavery in 1864 North Carolina (loosely based on the life of a real woman who escaped the Stagville Plantation outside of Durham) remains a popular vehicle for talking to children about slavery and family separation.
Mattel purchased the American Girl brand in 1998 and had obtained full rights from Rowland by 2000; Rowland, who now refuses most interviews, then unsuccessfully attempted to turn the Mount Kisco, New York, mansion that had inspired Samantha's story into a doll museum. Under Mattel's leadership, American Girl expanded, including the introduction of the limited-edition Girl of the Year (GOTY) line in 2001. The current GOTY, a surfer and cheerleader named Joss, is deaf in one ear and wears a hearing aid in the other, making her the first American Girl character with a visible disability. Other characters set in modern times have dealt with bullying, moving away from home, trouble with schoolwork, and the birth of a new sibling. The more perilous themes — cholera, yellow fever, polio, and the Pearl Harbor attack — are generally reserved for historical characters.
But beyond increasing media representation of children with marginalized life experiences, Mattel has also polished the veneer of American Girl, distancing the dolls from the company's affordable lines like Barbie and helping to drive the artificial scarcity of the collector's market: American Girl's first (and only) South Asian character, Sonali, introduced in 2009, was only available for one year and now goes for up to $800 on eBay, while Cécile, the second Black historical character, was only available for three years and now goes for up to $500. Each summer at the American Girl Benefit Sale in Madison, Wisconsin (held online this year), rare, retired dolls reappear for bidders.
Part of the reason the dolls have remained so popular is that with each new face mold American Girl creates, the dolls have stayed on the edge of the uncanny valley but haven't dipped into it: They look more like human girls than many knockoff brands, but not so much that they resemble humanoid robots. They're not designed with an unachievable body image like a classic Barbie, which has a breast-to-hip ratio that would make it impossible for her to stand, nor do they quite resemble the plush dolls of babyhood. American Girl dolls hit the sweet spot — with chubby cheeks, gap-toothed smiles, prepubescent bodies, wide, trusting eyes, and those thick bangs so common on elementary schoolers' foreheads. They were a shining image of girlhood when I was growing up in the 2000s, and when I received Samantha for my sixth birthday, I knew she had to be treated with the utmost care.
The new dolls currently sell for $110, and buyers can choose either an American Girl character or a Truly Me version — an option that features numerous predetermined skin and hair combinations meant to resemble a wide array of girls. If you want to customize the doll with your own preferences for face shape, haircut, and number of freckles, you'll need to shell out $200. Introduced in 2017, this Create Your Own line has proven somewhat contentious; while it allows some kids to design a doll that's very much in their own image, it lacks many of the textured hair options and eye shapes that collectors of color have been clamoring for. That leaves it to the independent artists and customizers who painstakingly craft different wigs, eyes, prosthetics, and clothes that represent aspects of their ethnicities, cultures and/or lifestyles that the big brand hasn't caught onto yet.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.