Reading Ancient Texts: The 1990s American Girl Doll Zine

Join me, if you will, on a journey into the pre-adolescent minds of young girls scared about Y2K's effects on computers.

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Reading Ancient Texts: The 1990s American Girl Doll Zine
Photo:American Girl

The American Girl Doll company has long satiated the curious minds of young folks who want to know what living in the past was like. How did live by candlelight? How did families escape slavery? What did your mom yelling at you to get off the family computer so she could call her friend sound like?

Earlier this month, the company debuted its newest historical dolls, twins Isabel and Nicki Hoffman who grew up in Seattle. The year we’re being flung back to is 1999. Imagine, if you can, the looming threat of Y2K, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial finally coming to an end, and still being able to light up a refreshing cigarette inside your NYC watering hole. Isabel is your typical girly girl and Nicki is what we might stereotype as a tom-boy. If there was one thing the 90s were hellbent on, it was pigeon-holing young people into character tropes. (See: every boy band to ever exist.)

Isabel and Nicki, like all American Girl Dolls, come with an accessories pack you can purchase to better contextualize their antiquated lives. A Pizza Hut pizza box, an inflatable chair, and a desktop computer give you clues into what life was like during this ancient time period. But most notably, to me at least, the twins come with a zine and diary that you can read to get a better sense of the inner workings of their fucked up little minds.

Seeing as the Jezebel office is about 100 yards away from the American Girl Doll store, I took a stroll over there during a forbidden moment of writer’s block. Displayed proudly in the front were Isabel and Nicki, their clothes layered and hats adorned with swaggy pins. Beside them were their zine and diary.

Photo:Kady Ruth Ashcraft

Along with some pages on how to make your own zine, Nicki’s zine, Girl Power, interviewed her friends about the definition of “girl power.” Collaborative! Investigative! True on-the-ground DIY reporting, if you ask me. Included are your run-of-the-mill answers any empowered girl turned SHE-E-O might churn out. “Girl power means following your dreams and making a difference for other women,” says Nicki’s mom, who looks like she is turning away from her computer (see above photo) to answer her daughter’s question before returning to her full-blown Sims addiction.

Nicki also includes an answer from her dog: “Grrrl power is treats and playtime! Woof!” Blossom the dog “says.” If I know anything about zines, they’re all about subverting mainstream culture. So while I’m hesitant to embrace a bitch’s (scientific term) radical ideas about feminism, I appreciate the boundaries being pushed.

Photo:Kady Ruth Ashcraft

Another historical re-discovery I made as someone who can barely remember the 90s—not because I wasn’t alive (I was) but because I was high on Nerds Rope and Fun Dip—is that we used to pass notes in college-ruled notebooks pre-text messaging. American Girl Doll has preserved this deranged tradition of having one shareable notebook to send between your friends that they can easily flip back to see what else you’re gossiping about. Of course, their version is very innocent. Isabel just chats with her sister and other friends about what pets their parents might let them get and what snacks they are craving. Looks like their friend Tiffany’s dad has a famous dip? Can’t say I ever uttered the phrase “famous dip” as a nine-year-old but I’m certainly intrigued. Tell me more…

Photo:Kady Ruth Ashcraft

The diary is littered with obsolete references like “Blockbuster” and dispatches from school days seemingly not interrupted by active shooter drills. It’s really a peek into the past. At one point, Isabel and her friend Quinn are eagerly waiting to hear about performing as the Spice Girls at a Millennium Celebration that Quinn’s dad is putting together. I imagine he’s in a sort of macho-dad standoff with Tiffany’s dad who has the famous dip. Which dad is going to win in the end? My money is still on dip dad. But also, I do not remember sending one note, let alone two, about my friends’ dads. No offense to John and Randy, of course. Just feels historically misrepresentative to place so much emphasis on dads and have there be nothing about marrying each member of Hanson or like, playing M-A-S-H.

I personally spent Y2K stricken with the impending doom of the apocalypse. There is one photo of me as a nine-year-old, the clock about to strike midnight and I’m chewing on the sleeve of my long sleeve shirt just ridden with anxiety about the world’s computers shutting down and I guess, like, highway systems not being able to work anymore?! I share this just as a reminder that these personal artifacts share one side of the story and not all. Not every kid in the nineties was invited to whatever the hell a Millennium Celebration is. And actually, the American Girl Doll website shows that while Isabel’s getting hyper thinking about all the bug juice and Doritos she’s going to have on New Year’s, her twin sister’s biggest fear is listed as the Y2K bug. Same, Nicki. Same.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to walk 100 yards east of my office and time travel back to an age of innocence and DIY zines. Thank you, American Girl Doll. Now I’m off to find Tiffany’s dad and learn more about this famous dip.

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