Mark Sherman: She was an American Girl

Mark-Sherman SQUAREAs the father of three sons and grandfather of four grandsons, and with no sisters or nieces, I am in the sad position of having never watched a girl grow up. And so I have been deprived of the fun of watching my child or grandchild play with what is a staple for girls: dolls. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a boy playing with dolls or a girl who doesn’t, but from a statistical point of view, dolls are typically a girl thing. And, after all, a major brand of dolls in the United States is American Girl, not American Boy or even American Child.

For those of you who have had dolls in your life, or have them now, what I say will not be news, but I always think it’s good to hear from outsiders. However, if in my doll ignorance I make some mistakes, I hope you’ll be understanding.

One thing that seems to be the case is that dolls have followed the very reasonable trend toward diversity. For example, prior to the 1960s there were few dolls that really looked African-American. But now there are dolls covering virtually every racial and ethnic identity, and this is, in large part, due to American Girl (bought for $700 million dollars by Mattel in 1998).


The company was started in 1986 by a woman with the wonderful name of Pleasant Rowland. Being in an undolled family, I didn’t even realize that American Girl features dolls from all kinds of periods of American history, and that they come with books about the dolls’ stories. So not only were girls playing with dolls, they were reading and learning — just one more reason why, from kindergarten through graduate school, girls and then women do better than boys and men.

But in the ’00s, AG also began a line of contemporary dolls, and these too can be inspirational. The featured one each year called the “Girl of the Year,” and, as an example, consider Lanie Holland, Girl of the Year in 2010. Here’s how Lanie is described by the company: “Lanie is a ten-year-old girl living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She enjoys science and nature, and considers herself a scientist…she uses many large, scientific words in her speech and thoughts.”

This is not your mother’s Barbie.

I first became intrigued by American Girl dolls about five years ago when, at an airport, I saw a story on CNN about Rebecca Rubin, described as the company’s first Jewish doll. Well, technically, Rebecca isn’t the first one. She is rather the first in the company’s historical collection. AG’s original Jewish doll was actually Lindsay Bergman, who was the very first Girl of the Year in 2001. Lindsay was apparently not quite as ambitious as Lanie. Her description reads: “Lindsey Bergman just wants to help out and fix things. She tries to stop the Pet Parade, help two teachers fall in love, cheer up her uncle, and help out with her brother’s bar mitzvah.”

Rebecca, back in 1914, was a performer, but also very much into helping people. Here’s her story: “I’m Rebecca Rubin. I love to perform and tell jokes. And when I get a chance to put my talents to good use, I act. I’m ready for any role that lets me brighten people’s lives — whether gathering around the Sabbath candles with family, helping out a neighbor, or giving my all in front of a crowd!”

I love these girls. A great combination of talent and concern for others.

I’m not exactly the entrepreneurial type, but if I were, I would start a company called American Boy, which would feature a line of boy dolls to inspire our male youth. For example, the historical collection could include John Doughboy, an eleven-year-old in 1917, and his story could read, “I’m John Doughboy, and I’m really looking forward to being 18, so I can join the Army and fight in World War I (if it’s still going on). I can’t wait to grow up and be violent. I wish someone would invent something that could let me watch violence on a screen at home, but, hey, what are the chances of that ever happening?”

And in the contemporary collection there could be the “Boy of the Year,” Ethan Goodman. Here’s his story: “I’m Ethan, and I’m ten. I love playing video games and ignoring my schoolwork. My most fun in life is playing with my little brother and sister, and I’m eager to grow up and have kids, so I can be a stay-at-home dad!”