A Peek Inside Instagram's Thriving Tween American Girl Doll Fandom 


The Internet is a giant mechanism for facilitating fandoms—no news there. And yet, it never ceases to amaze! For instance, were you aware that American Girl devotees are, as we speak, posting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lovingly composed shots of their dolls in various costumes on Instagram?

If you spend free time cruising Instagram’s Explore page, you might’ve noticed a trending hashtag a last week: #AGIG. Click through and you’d find photo after photo of American Girl dolls, numbering up into the thousands. Thousands! Some participants just posted a shot or two, but the real die-hard enthusiasts uploaded entire photo shoots. Whole tableaux, even.

Because of the holiday weekend, many of these staged American Girl doll scenes were Fourth of July-themed, with dolls cozied up around elaborate BBQ scenes, or wrapped in flags like some patriotic Seventeen spread, or simply sporting ponytails and American Girl t-shirts. My personal favorite was the user who uploaded a string of snaps of a doll in a blue sequined dress alongside the lyrics to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Some got a little heavier into the DIY than others, cutting their dolls’ hair short and styling them as boys and even setting up chastely romantic scenes.

The scenes were beautifully mundane, nothing too off-the-wall—just dolls goofing around, the plastic counterparts to the teen-goofing-around that powers Vine and Kik and all those other platforms that’ve sprung up since LiveJournal and Xanga went the way of the dodo.

But what’s interesting about this virtual fandom congregation is that it seems to have precisely zero involvement from American Girl, the corporate entity. It seems somebody, once upon a time, just suggested her fellow fans start posting under the hashtag #AGIG and it went from there. Not that the participants are above lobbying the brand’s official Instagram for some love:

This isn’t just some random upswell. #AGIG is the tip of an AG fandom iceberg. There are scads of accounts wholly dedicated to photographing and taping American Girl dolls, part of an entire thriving online subculture. We’ve written before about the weird, wonderful world of American Girl YouTube, where there’s an entrenched community of teens and tweens making music videos featuring their dolls. Instagram, a visual medium built on making amateurs feel professional, fits especially well with AG fandom, which is dominated by tweens.

Of course, American Girl fandom isn’t only tweens. There are too many people hustling their Etsy stores on #AGIG for that to be the case, and American Girl has always been popular with adult collectors as well as kids. For one, there’s a mother-daughter team with nearly 7,000 followers on Instagram, and more than 16,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel. Another woman says she’s been collecting dolls for twenty-six years; she gathered her dolls as well as her daughter’s and niece’s for a group shot. And some AG lovers are just your classic doll enthusiasts, who maintain an interest in other brands as well.

But most of the participants and followers seem to be teens and tweens, as old as college-age and as young as 11, who just really love photography—and, of course, American Girl. They’re often absurdly good at what they do, too, because they’ve been tinkering with digital photography and social media since they were practically babies. One popular poster has more than 11,000 followers; her sleekly shot photos—which amass hundreds of likes—bear a close resemblance to what you’d see from a style blogger, except it’s American Girl dolls wearing the floppy hats instead of 25-year-olds at Coachella. She also has a YouTube channel where she makes videos starring her dolls, with remarkably high production values. She is 15. She is definitely going to take my job one day.

And there are many more. Some of them have thousands of followers; some have under a hundred. They deliberate over which shots look best, or whether they prefer historical or contemporary costumes. They do giveaways and they recommend other accounts to follow, helping boost them over the 1K-followers mark. Several are group endeavors—sisters or friends working together. The sheer scale of the community is astonishing. Are teens allowed to roam free on the Internet like this? This is instinctively terrifying to adults wary of stranger danger and trained to think of their lives online as long resumes. But of course they are! Teens are Instagram famous, with their own hordes of younger fans, commenting away; they assemble into great Dance Moms-obsessed swarms. Why not devote some time to American Girl?

Anybody who grew up poring over the Pleasant Company catalogs ought to recognize what’s going on here. Sure, there were the books, but what really powered American Girl to a hallmark of American girlhood is sheer consumerist want. We wanted the accessories; these #AGIG teenagers have a platform to show them off. Staging an American Girl scene, whether in your bedroom or in front of an iPhone camera, involves blending what’s alien with what’s very familiar. A dinner table, but laden with Colonial or Gilded Age goodies. School supplies, but from World War II or the American frontier.

The modern face of the company, with its dolls that look Just Like You! and their contemporary trappings, make it even more obvious what all this is about—allowing girls to enact their own lives, but in miniature, and with more control over the script. (Not that different from playing princess-as-boss, really.) Hence the company’s offering the $110 spa chair and the $38 wheelchair alike.

It’s only natural that, as they get a little older and a little more familiar with camera angles and iMovie, American Girl fans would embrace Instagram and YouTube as creative opportunities. Though on the #AGIG tag, you won’t see too many elaborate, expensive playsets—it’s mostly just dolls posing in various outfits and environments. Like a teenager might, if she had unlimited self-confidence and a friend with a high-quality camera and a feel for the right light.

As with most teen and tween endeavors, #AGIG is not free of “the haters.” Fans celebrated landing on the Explore page with screencaps and triumphant posts declaring July 3 “AGIG Day.” But the sudden bout of attention brought people piling onto the tag, hopping into the comments to denounce doll photography as dumb or self-indulgent or creepy.

Others dumped various lewd and/or gross images, including one particularly unsavory photo of a literal turd. Somebody even created an entire account titled “Stop AGIG,” with the description, “FUCK DOLLS.” And so came the posts pleading for a stop to the “doll hate” and explaining that their hobbies are not weird. It was the perfect grace note; if there’s anything adolescents love more than self-expression, it’s vehemently defending that self-expression against an invader who doesn’t get it.

#AGIG is as much a phenomenon that’s particularly 2015 as it is a replication of the basic American Girl impulses that are almost studiously old-fashioned: to set up a little child’s-play scenario, to stock it with lots of tiny and beautiful things. I’m just delighted to see teens and tweens still lavishing their free time on anything besides Ask.fm, obscure sex stuff, ISIS boyfriends, and jokes about how jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Photos via Instagram, via OneMoreDoll, LizAGFan.

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