The Renegade DIYers Demanding Dolls as Diverse as They Are

American Girl has long epitomized a particular vision of childhood perfection. Armed with pots of dye and webcams, today’s teens are pushing the brand to embrace their underrepresented fans.

The Renegade DIYers Demanding Dolls as Diverse as They Are

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. (Image courtesy of Teddie)

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’s customized “mini me” doll. (Photo courtesy of Dizzi Ford)

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.”

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.

Molly McIntire, one of the three original American Girls created by Pleasant Rowland in 1986. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

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.

“I get so much hate for putting water on my dolls’ hair before I use a straightening iron on it,” says AGTube personality foreveranddollways, explaining her perspective in a video titled “The Do’s and Don’ts of Customization.” “However, the doll’s hair is synthetic hair and it’s made out of plastic. If you put direct heat on plastic, it’s gonna melt.” A high school student, foreveranddollways is a semi-anonymous YouTuber who’s made more than 600 videos, often showing off her skill at cleaning, repairing and customizing secondhand American Girl dolls. She also runs a doll photography competition in the style of America’s Next Top Model, which has garnered her nearly 94,000 subscribers. She’s one of the many doll collectors and customizers who films step-by-step guides to deconstructing and redesigning an American Girl doll; a simple YouTube search reveals playlists about how to pierce your doll’s nose, swap out your doll’s eyes, make their thrift store hair look new again, or make them look like Daenerys Targaryen of Games of Thrones.

While many skilled customizers share their tips and tricks with eager audiences, the more successful YouTubers are less likely to hand out blueprints that would allow viewers to copy their styles. Teddie says that she taught herself how to dye doll limbs through trial and error because others “have been very secretive about their methods.” She takes more of an open-source approach in her tongue-in-cheek videos, whether she’s showing off a Beyoncé-inspired custom look or strategically complimenting brands like Our Generation until they reward her with a sponsorship and free swag.

Teddie first noticed the lack of variety in American Girl’s offerings when she was in elementary school and wanted dolls sporting colorful hair — like the shades of purple she now wears. In fact, she began taking pictures of her dolls and uploading them to Instagram when she was still in kindergarten (“I have parents who trust me with the internet,” she says). Later, Teddie learned how to use multiple kinds of photo editing software, as well as the basics of digital media monetization through AGTube. She also began to recognize that American Girl products didn’t fully represent nonwhite Americans. “I started dyeing dolls because they don’t really carry a great range of skin tones, and they only go so dark,” she says. (American Girl has since expanded the skin-tone offerings in its Create Your Own line from three shades to six.)

“I made a video teaching everybody how you can dye your doll to make them more representative of more people in the world,” Teddie says, adding that she also customized dolls to look more masculine before American Girl introduced its first boy doll in 2017.

Some of Teddie’s doll collection photographed in a yearbook style. (Image courtesy of Teddie)

AGTube is filled with tutorials about how to increase and spotlight diversity within a doll collection: How to take the disheveled hair of a secondhand Addy, for example, and turn it into box braids, or how to paint epicanthic folds to make a doll’s eyes look more explicitly East Asian. AGIG blew up with Pride posts this June as collectors sold doll-sized rainbow and community-specific flags. A few years ago, one user declared September a showcase for dolls of color, and the hashtag #docmonth now has thousands of posts annually. Another user, a historian who posts as iamexcessivelydollverted, showcased the traditional characters this fall with #HistoricalDollOutTheVote to explore what issues they may have considered when voting in their time periods — if they would have had access to the polls. Teddie, for her part, has donated portions of the profits from her custom creations since this summer to Black Lives Matter, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and the Diasporans Against SARS fundraiser addressing police brutality in Nigeria. But despite having more than 15,000 followers, Teddie is not the type of doll influencer that American Girl typically seeks for its partnerships.

Teddie’s dolls as protesters, posted on her Instagram account days after the death of George Floyd. (Image courtesy of Teddie)

On the American Girl website, twin girls blow kisses at the camera, clutching pink and pastel-haired dolls. “Mix and match like Ava and Leah,” the heading reads. These stylish 10-year-olds are the Clements twins, child models who boast an Instagram following of 1.8 million and have posed in ads for jeans, handbags, swimsuits and, yes, American Girl dolls. Their photos are highly stylized, their eyes heavily lined, their lips agape, their faces sometimes airbrushed with obvious filters. The account is run by their mother, Jaqi, who made headlines last year for using Instagram to help search for a bone marrow donor in the wake of her husband’s leukemia diagnosis.

Another company partner, a 14-year-old from California named Chloe, has 633,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, Chloe’s American Girl Doll Channel. Each week, Chloe shows her viewers the latest American Girl accessory set or furniture piece sent to her from the company, interspersed with DIY doll accessory crafting videos filmed at American Girl’s Wisconsin headquarters. In a video shot when Chloe was 8, she holds a giant American Girl shopping bag and narrates a trip to the Los Angeles store. “My mom did buy me one big thing, but then I bought four other things,” she proclaims, showing off matching doll-and-kid pajamas she bought with her own money, along with the new doll her mom purchased for her. She’s obviously interested in the products, but it’s hard to tell at what point her doll collecting turned from an authentic initiative of her own into a lucrative sponsorship deal.

Even if all of her dolls were gifts from American Girl, Chloe, who turned down an interview request after running it by Mattel, makes her socioeconomic status clear in her videos. In one, she is chauffeured to the airport for an American Girl promotional meeting in the Midwest. In a video about what the average viewer can do with their dolls when they’re bored, she suggests riding an elephant in Thailand, like she did on a family trip. She asks viewers to vote on which doll should join her on her family’s annual trip to Hawaii, prompting a doll hairdresser in a video at an American Girl store in Chicago to exclaim, “You go to Hawaii every year?”

This display of wealth may be off-putting to children who have to save pennies for a doll, or to parents who do not want their kids to aspire to such superficiality, but it’s perhaps not surprising that American Girl’s child influencers may be worth a quarter of a million dollars before they’re even in high school. Haul and unboxing videos, where influencers show off after a day of shopping, are wildly popular on YouTube, and the transition from watching adult YouTubers unload makeup and clothes to watching child media personalities unbox toys is almost natural: It gives children goals for toys they want to own, as opposed to toys they hope to enjoy. As historians Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks point out in an episode of their American Girls podcast, the wealthy Samantha character doesn’t seem to want her own expensive porcelain doll to dress up or play with: She wants it just to have it.

Kristen, a 24-year old actor, regularly posts photos of her “mini Kristen” doll on her @ag_4allages Instagram page, and she created an original stop-motion fairy-tale musical series on her YouTube channel featuring a diverse array of dolls. “The more children see themselves in toys and media, the more they will see that they can be anything they want to be,”  Kristen says. “That is the goal of my page.”

Kristen and her “Mini Kristen” doll. (Image courtesy of Kristen)

Kristen also serves as an American Girl ambassador, receiving packages from the company each month. While she posts photos of the merchandise for her 17,000 followers as part of her sponsorship agreement, it’s a different arrangement than that of models like the Clements twins, and Kristen has leeway to voice personal opinions in relation to the brand.  As anti–police brutality protests took hold of the country in June, she posted about her family’s experiences with racism, accompanied by a photo of Black dolls with duct-taped mouths that read “I Can’t Breathe.” For its part, the American Girl brand posted an Instagram statement about racism early in the summer, followed by two posts outlining actions it and Mattel would take to address racism: They donated overstock books about Black, Indigenous, Mexican and Jewish characters to libraries; hinted at the development of a new Black character; and promised a video series in the fall about “what it means to be an American girl today” featuring “the Black authors and experts” who created their Black characters. (These have not yet materialized; the only new video the company has released relating to race relations features actor Mariska Hargitay reading No Ordinary Sound, a book about Melody, a Black American Girl character from 1964 Detroit, to her own daughter, who is Black.)

Kristen’s dolls, as posted on her Instagram with a statement about racism. (Image courtesy of Kristen)

“It is vastly important that we keep striving to be inclusive and diverse,” Kristen says, adding that she hopes the company “showcases more meaningful stories where girls of color are the starring character and not the sidekick.” The “sidekick” phenomenon has been unfortunately common in the company’s offerings so far. For example, American Girl’s only historical East Asian character, Ivy Ling, was advertised as a “Best Friend” of a white character, and while Ivy is retired, the white character is still available. Still, echoing the optimism evinced by her bubbly social media presence, Kristen notes that the brand “is further ahead than many toy companies,” and that she remains “so proud of American Girl for their statement.”

“American Girl is proud of its strong track record in creating diverse characters and products,” says Julie Parks, the brand’s director of public relations. “Looking back over the past four years alone, we launched Melody to our historical line in 2016, followed by Gabriela [both Black]. Nanea [Indigenous Hawaiian] joined the historical line in fall 2017, and in January 2018, we debuted Marisol Luna, our Girl of the Year.” (Parks meant to refer to Luciana Vega, a Latina character and the 2018 GOTY; Marisol Luna, a Mexican-American dancer and the only other contemporary Latina character, was GOTY in 2005.) “We are committed to continuing to expand in the area of diversity and inclusion,” Parks says.

There’s one name nestled in Parks’ comments that will make any American Girl collector or #AGIG frequenter shudder: Gabriela. While her marketing eventually designated her the official GOTY for 2017, many fans regard Gabriela’s rollout with distaste. “They didn’t put any effort into it,” Faye, the DollCast co-host, says. “It was literally a reused doll.”

While the GOTY is, in most cases, a new combination of hair color and style, face mold and skin tone, that was not the case with Gabriela. First, American Girl abruptly retired Truly Me 46, a medium-dark-skinned doll with curly brown hair. Within a few months, leaked images confirmed that American Girl had repurposed 46 as Gabriela, the first Black GOTY. Many fans felt cheated.

“That was the thing that kind of started my relevancy in the doll community, because I made a video about how this was so weird and gross,” Teddie says, referencing a video in which she compared images of Gabriela to the 46 she already owned. “It went AGTube viral.”

Teddie at an American Girl store. (Image courtesy of Teddie)

“If you’ve somehow been living under a rock,” a pink-haired Teddie says in the video, gesticulating as she holds the 46 doll in her lap, “[46 is] being reused as the Girl of the Year.” Then, with an air of both gravitas and self-deprecation, she goes on say, “This is one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever seen.”

While Teddie’s video helped clarify the mystery for many fans, the doll’s mishandled marketing campaign also hit some fans — especially fans of color — in the gut. Shortly after Gabriela’s debut, American Girl released Tenney, a guitar-strumming Taylor Swift lookalike from Nashville, alongside a Best Friend bandmate. Fans soured, wondering how the company could swoop in and release two new white characters so soon after releasing the first Black GOTY. It’s one of the reasons the hosts of The DollCast think that American Girl’s Black Lives Matter statement feels disingenuous.

Dizzi Ford worked at an American Girl retail store when Gabriela and Tenney were released, and Ford feels like the company’s promise to add “more Black voices to our development process” requires more transparency than a simple Instagram assurance. “I will never believe it until they start actively showing the people who work on the creative teams for these new characters,” Ford says. While Ford once hoped to work their way up in product design for American Girl or a similar company, they have since refocused their efforts on photography and the performing arts. “When it comes down to everything, I really think AG does not represent the Black community, and they do not represent the queer community.”

Both Ford and Faye point out that Barbie, the original child of Mattel, has done a better job of modeling diversity for consumers. Over the past five years, Barbie has mass-marketed Black dolls with textured braids, twists and Afros — offerings that American Girl fans still have to buy from independent wigmakers on sites like Etsy. Barbie has also changed some of its eye designs for Asian dolls, introduced a “Curvy” line, and debuted a doll with vitiligo, a skin pigmentation condition that causes people to lose melanin in patches. There’s a stark difference between the diversity seen among bargain bin Barbies and that of the $200 Create Your Own American Girl line — a discrepancy that Mattel surely must be aware of, as the parent company of both brands.

Kristen’s “Mini Kristen” doll with others in her collection. (Image courtesy of Kristen )

And yet, much of the #AGIG community carries on unbothered, preferring their own creations to a large corporation’s offerings anyway. Black artists meticulously wind synthetic wigs into Afros, braids and dreadlocks. Asian artists use ink and makeup to subtly alter the shape of dolls’ eyelids. Latinx artists dip dolls in dye for a fuller range of human skin tones. Queer collectors make and sell doll-sized Pride flags and rainbow clothing, adding piercings or haircuts suited to their own identity. American Girl products have “so many places that they could go, and they don’t go there,” Ford says, speaking about their hopes for the brand’s future, “but I would love for them to just make more dolls that look like me, my peers, and my friends around the world.” Still, like their friends and followers on Dollstagram, Ford recognizes that the change that comes directly from consumers themselves is often more meaningful than anything a brand will ever do.