American Girl debuted in 1986 with three historical dolls: Kirsten Larson, a pioneer girl living in Minnesota in 1854; Samantha Parkington, an orphan living in New York City during the early 1900s; and Molly McIntire, a girl awaiting her father’s return from World War II in Illinois in 1944.
When the company announced recently that it would be releasing their first historical doll in years, I was intrigued. Would it take its cue from “Hamilton” and give us girl from 1776? Was it time for a Suffragette’s story to be told, or maybe one from the Roaring 20s?
Not even close. The newest historical American Girl, Courtney Moore, is from 1986—the year I turned 11.
I processed this news slowly. Am I really old enough for my childhood to become part of a historical story? I did the math. When American Girl first released Molly in 1986 she was a historical figure from 44 years in the past. She seemed impossibly old to me at the time. Now, in 2020, Courtney—with her big hair, pink tights, acid-washed skirt and jelly bracelets—is a historical figure from 34 years in the past. She seems impossibly old to my nine-year-old daughter.
(In an interesting nod to this timeline, one of Courtney’s toys is a mini-version of Molly McIntyre, cementing American Girl’s founding as a seminal event in the 1980s.)
As my daughter flipped through the new catalog, I wondered if she would find Courtney cool or lame. How would she take the news that her very own mother once sported hair like Courtney’s and had the same neon tights—as well as pairs in lime green, yellow and blue?
“Hey! She likes Pac-Man just like you!” said my daughter, also noticing that Courtney has a clear phone like the one in “The Babysitter’s Club” on Netflix. I explained that American Girl got the details right because Pac-Man and “The Babysitter’s Club” (the books, that is) are both from a time long, long ago: the 80s.
I started to think that Courtney could be a fun walk down memory lane rather than a reminder that I am now firmly in middle age, my childhood as unrelatable to today’s girls as World War II or the plains of Minnesota were to me in the 1980s. I was pretty sure I had the same Care Bear nightgown as Courtney and called my mother to confirm that I indeed had an identical one in pink. It was one of my most beloved possessions and it is now memorized forever in the American Girl historical collection. I also had her jean jacket, scrunchie, Walk-Man and Swatch-like watch.
Still, as much fun as I had looking through Courtney’s World with my daughter, I could not reconcile that all of these symbols of my childhood had been relegated to the same category as Kirsten’s prairie dress and bonnet from the 1850s—historical relics meant to explain the olden days to modern kids. What would girls in 2020 gain from learning about the 1980s besides a series of fashion don’ts?
Reading Courtney’s American Girl story I realized that in the 1980s I had been living through history without realizing I was doing so. It was a decade of both advances for women and advances in technology. The 1980s included several female firsts: Geraldine Ferraro ran as a vice-presidential candidate, Sandra Day O’Connor joined the U.S. Supreme Court and Christa McAuliffe become the first American civilian to go into space.
Unlike me, Courtney knows she is living through an important era in history. She’s inspired to learn coding, a new field in the 80s, so that she too can one day create games as awesome as Pac-Man. She is undeterred by gender. After all, if a girl can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice or an astronaut, why couldn’t Courtney grow up to be a coder?
Looking at Courtney was like looking at a younger version of myself, although if I’m being honest, my hair was bigger and my tights were brighter. Courtney may well earn a spot on my daughter’s holiday list, and I know what I’m adding to mine: American Girl’s Pac-Man arcade game. After at least a decade of not thinking much about it, thanks to Courtney, I have rediscovered an old favorite.