Why Millennial Women Can't Let Go Of American Girl

Why haven’t adult women outgrown their American Girl dolls?

By Meghan Dillon4 min read
Pexels/Esra Tüzü

I still remember the day when I got my first American Girl doll. I was 4 years old and couldn't contain my excitement as I unwrapped my Felicity doll on Christmas morning. Twenty-six years (and five more dolls) later, I still love American Girl and plan to give my dolls to my future daughter someday.

Whether we're wondering what American Girl dolls would be like as influencers or which ones would be Swifties, it's safe to say that I'm not the only millennial still attached to the brand.

A Brief History of the American Girl Brand

Founded in 1986 by former school teacher, news anchor, and textbook author Pleasant Rowland, American Girl is one of the most iconic brands for millennials. After a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, 45-year-old Rowland was inspired to create an educational yet fun line of books and dolls to help young girls learn about American history. The first three dolls were Samantha Parkington (a wealthy orphan from Upstate New York in 1904), Kirsten Larson (a Swedish girl who immigrated to Minnesota with her family in 1854), and Molly McIntire (a Midwestern girl struggling with growing up during World War II). Each doll starred in a story from a significant part of American history, only it was more fun because girls could see it through the eyes of other girls. The dolls also had accessories, extra outfits that fit their time period, and a series of books that told their story.

The first three dolls were a hit and were followed up with Felicity Merriman (who lived in Colonial Williamsburg during the American Revolution) in 1991, Addy Walker (a brave runaway slave who fled to freedom in Philadelphia with her mother near the end of the Civil War) in 1993, and Josefina Montoya (who lived in New Mexico under Mexican rule in the 1820s) in 1997.

While the original mission of American Girl was to tell stories of girls throughout history, the brand quickly expanded to other types of dolls like the Just Like Me collection (modern dolls that were the same model as the historical dolls but didn't have a historical backstory) and Bitty Baby (a baby doll marketed toward girls age three to five); both lines were released in 1995. Another popular collection is Girl of the Year, where a new doll is released every year with a backstory of her own set in that year. The collection began in 2001 and is still popular today.

In 1998, Rowland sold her company to Mattel, who continued to release iconic historical dolls. Some of the most popular releases under Mattel were Kit Kittredge (a curious girl growing up in the Great Depression) in 2000, Kaya'aton'my (a Native American girl of the Nez Perce tribe) in 2002, and Julie Albright (who grew up in the 1970s) in 2007.

Aside from the dolls, the brand is also known for its guidebooks for girls, the most famous being The Care and Keeping of You. Originally released in 1998, the book is intended for girls starting puberty, and it covers topics ranging from the changes our bodies experience to menstrual health, feminine hygiene, and self-esteem. Other popular books explore similar themes, like navigating friendships and crushes, school, family issues, and mental health. While the brand has changed over the years, its mission to educate and empower girls in a fun way remains true today.

American Girl in the Social Media Age

Millennial women who were young girls in the late ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s (and some younger Gen Zers who were young girls in the 2000s) were the first audience for American Girl, and they still make up a large portion of its fan base. The girls who play with the dolls today are too young to have social media, meaning their moms (who were the original target demographic for the brand) are the ones looking at American Girl's social media accounts and buying the dolls. So it only makes sense for American Girl’s marketing to appeal to this demographic, and they do a great job.

The historical collection's most recent release proves that the brand recognizes and plays to its millennial fans. In a nod to millennial icons Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the dolls set in 1999 (yes, this means the dolls were born in 1990) are twin sisters Isabel and Nicki Hoffman. Isabel is a stereotypical girlie girl who loves tennis, while Nicki is a tomboy who loves skateboarding. Much of the social media content promoting the dolls is pure millennial nostalgia, like the girls getting ready for Y2K or arguing about how one needs to get off the internet so the other can use the phone because dial-up – concepts completely foreign to Gen Z and Gen Alpha. 

The official American Girl accounts aren't the only ones taking advantage of the millennial love for nostalgia though. In the summer of 2022, American Girl meme accounts like @hellicity_merriman went viral on Instagram. It all started with the meme format “We need an American Girl doll who…,” followed by a historical event, like “We need an American Girl doll who falsely claimed to be the lost princess Anastasia Romanov after her family was slaughtered,” or weird things many of us experienced growing up like, “We need an American Girl doll who cried when Nick Jonas was diagnosed with diabetes.”

The memes go beyond Instagram – American Girl content is an entire subgenre on TikTok. Nothing captures this and the millennial sense of humor like the viral TikTok of a parody documentary of an American Girl doll cult.

With so much American Girl content successfully targeted toward grown millennial women, you have to wonder why we can't seem to let go of our dolls.

The Power of Nostalgia

The reason why millennials can't let go of American Girl is surprisingly simple: we’re suckers for nostalgia because there's comfort in it. It's why many of us choose to rewatch The Office or Gilmore Girls instead of watching something new. In a time of intense political division and a dreadful economy, we live in an age of uncertainty, meaning knowing how something is going to end (even if it's as simple as a TV show) is comforting, and nothing stirs up good memories quite like American Girl.

As a generation, millennials are particularly attracted to nostalgia: 47% of them feel nostalgic toward media, and 14% prefer to think about the past instead of the future. Nostalgia for the '90s and early 2000s is so popular that plenty of influencers have made a following (and income) from it. Brands have noticed the way millennials love nostalgia and have used it as a marketing strategy as well. Studies show that triggering nostalgia inspires people to buy because it “promises an immediate return in the form of happy memories and comfort.” This certainly applies to American Girl.

Millennials and older Gen Zers have memories of the world before technology took over. Many of us got our first cell phones in our teens, and chances are, they weren't smartphones because they had yet to be invented. The only screen time our parents were concerned with was how much TV we were watching, and we loved playing with our American Girl dolls and learning their stories. Many find history boring, but American Girl won the hearts of millions of little girls by making it fun. Memories from childhood are supposed to be pure, innocent, and fun, and American Girl played a role in a lot of them for millennials. 

This nostalgia marketing perpetually reminds millennial women that they loved American Girl dolls and reinforces their happy memories or taps into their other childhood experiences like dial-up, Y2K, and inflatable chairs. It's a strategy that's only limited to the number of common childhood experiences you can incorporate into your brand. So not only does American Girl sell dolls and books to the daughters, but it keeps moms and grown millennial women engaged by tapping into their childhood memories. 

That being said, American Girl’s continuing popularity is founded on more than just a smart marketing strategy. Even as adults, the stories behind the American Girl dolls are still compelling, and it's comforting to know that some of these stories take place in times much harder than ours (like the Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II), and the girls in the stories still found ways to be positive and strong.

Closing Thoughts 

As we grow older, we tend to turn to nostalgia for comfort and familiarity. American Girl represents many things, but one is the innocence and fun of childhood, and most of us aren't ready to let that go.

Support our cause and help women reclaim their femininity by subscribing today.