Baby Dolls Grow Up

At first, I watched the world of American Girl stop-motion videos for LOLZ. But now, the genre strikes me as an impressive, and often moving, expression of young women’s creativity.

Three American Girl dolls with accessories like a guitar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PolkadotAG/YouTube.

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For two years in Brooklyn, my roommate and I had the luxury of a large (though likely tetanus-bearing, nail-littered) backyard. In the summer, we would have outdoor parties, but there was no greater joy than the post-party wind-down when stragglers would flop onto the small sofas in our cramped living room for a YouTube plunge. We would coast through music videos, watch Vine compilations, and hunt for old episodes of our favorite children’s shows. But my favorite videos to pull up were those in the elaborate cinematic universe of American Girl Doll Stop-Motion, or AGSM for those in the loop.

The first AGSM music video I saw, and the first I pull up to introduce friends to the genre, is a video by auteur PolkadotAG set to “A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri. “A Thousand Years” is the love theme from the final Twilight film and, unsurprisingly, a favorite of AGSM creators. This video opens with a close-up of a brunette doll’s face dripping with tears. The video jumps back in time to follow the friendship of the brunette, Melody, and her blond best friend, Isabelle, leading up to—spoiler alert—Isabelle’s tragic death as the victim of vehicular manslaughter.

PolkadotAG’s work hits all of the marks of what makes these videos so great. Not only does the video have a tragic plot, but it also makes use of a variety of American Girl doll accessories mixed with DIY ingenuity. The girls make cookies together, putting a batterlike liquid onto a toy baking sheet that is placed into a toy oven before coming out with toy cookies on it—brilliant! Even Isabelle’s tragic death is brought about by another doll carelessly cruising in a pink AG SUV, and she is tended to by a doll in an official AG nurse’s uniform. Isabelle’s hospital room is decked out in a mixture of AG furniture and hospital equipment made out of graph paper and string. A handwritten “ALERT” on the graph paper hospital monitor makes for a heart-wrenching and striking visual.

Last year, I left my Brooklyn apartment and moved home to Buffalo, New York, to help take care of my mom. I could not bring all of my friends or my living room with me, but I could bring AGSM videos. More and more, I find myself returning to these videos, especially late at night when I can’t sleep. As the hours creep on, I sit in front of my laptop and watch AGSM music videos and movies. I am constantly impressed by the myriad uses of the hairless American Girl, from leukemia storylines to a personal favorite about a girl with alopecia finding her inner beauty. I am drawn to the melodrama, the production value, and the range of costumes and props. I am fascinated by the community: Encouraging comments abound, and shoutouts to other creators feature prominently in video descriptions. I’ve even found subcommunities, like a thriving pack of religious makers set out to use their American Girl dolls to tell stories about Christ, like “The True Meaning of Christmas.”

I’m not proud to admit that this obsession started as a late-night laugh session at the hard work of young girls. The more I watched, however, the more I grew to appreciate and take seriously the effort and craftsmanship of the AGSM artists. In one video description, the creator shares that it took her two weeks to complete the video.

It is exciting to see the ways young girls express themselves online. Most of the AGSM videos focus on female friendships. Sure, one of the girls usually ends up dying or battling an illness, but it is refreshing to see young girls making content for themselves that doesn’t always revolve around boys, crushes, and romance. With so few women still being recognized for their work as screenwriters, directors, and cinematographers, it feels good to find a weird corner of the internet, a more wholesome proto-TikTok, where girls are teaching themselves how to be all of the above.

Sprawled on the same bed in the same room where I hid from my high school bullies, I spend hours watching, but no longer laughing, at the AGSM videos. The creative work and sense of community reminds me of ways that I found solace online as a young girl. Growing up, I spent a lot of my time on LiveJournal. On LiveJournal, I was able to teach myself skills that seemed otherwise inaccessible. In creating custom HTML LiveJournal layouts, my peers and I were really young women in STEM. I also found a sense of community virtually when I struggled to find one at school. I love that AGSM videos provides that for a new generation of girls.

User Agbrownies articulates my journey with AGSM in the plot description of a video about a 13-year-old realizing she isn’t too old for her dolls: “Eventually, the girl realizes that she can grow older, but bring her childhood imagination along with her.” I am 27, almost 28, and have had a tough year, but these videos are one of the things that brings me comfort and joy. Thank you to the robust community of AGSM creators for helping to remind me that even as I get older, I can still bring my childhood imagination along with me.