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Dolls, books, and ‘The Bachelor’: Historian pair reflects on their American Girls podcast

American Girls Podcast hosts Allison Horrocks and Mary MahoneyHandout/Courtesy of American Girls Podcast

Historians Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks love American Girls.

So much so that in February 2019, they started the American Girls podcast, a sharp critique of the storied brand — more specifically, the book series that weaves the backstory of each doll during a pivotal time in American history. The pair of trained historians revisit the novels they read as children and analyze them from a feminist point of view. Mahoney and Horrocks trace the American Girls' timeline, starting with Colonial Virginia heroine Felicity, to their current dissection of Edwardian era Samantha. With time, their cult following has grown, and with many American Girls left to tackle, there’s no end in sight.


The Globe chatted with the New England-based friends about how the podcast started and what its future holds.

Q. You’re critiquing the books from a feminist lens. Why is that the angle you decided to go with when you started the podcast?

Allison: Going book by book is a model that’s worked for other podcasts that look back on childhood interests. In terms of the feminist piece, we’re centering women’s stories and valuing gender and queer analysis. I think 50 other people could make this show with 50 other perspectives, and it would be valuable and interesting. But this is how we talk and how we’re trained to analyze [as trained historians] and how we discuss things as friends.

Mary: Allison and I are 100 percent ourselves on this show. Whether that means we’re talking about “The Bachelor” with the same seriousness with which we talk about American history.

Allison: There’s also an interesting spectrum there. Like, how willing are you to be introspective about a thing that you love? There are people who have listened to the show who think we are too hard or too easy on the authors. And part of that is because we’re not trying to look back on this from a lens of nostalgia. That’s just not really what we were trained to do as historians. But if we didn’t love these books, we would not be where we are. We wouldn’t spend the amount of time we do with this show every week if we didn’t care about these stories.


Mary: To put this in “Bachelor” terms, we’re here for the right reasons.

American Girls Podcast host Mary Mahoney with MollyHandout

Q. One of the things you talk about is reclaiming the word “girls.”

Mary: In many ways, it’s something that’s diminished or demeaned. It’s used to downplay the seriousness of products or books pitched at young women. Even as adult women now, it’s sometimes used to demean us. Other historians would call us “girls” when we were in grad school, and here we are in our 20s, getting PhDs. A really important piece of the [American Girl] brand is also centering the stories of young women.

Q. You are really focusing on the original books. But American Girl has evolved now. Do you like where the brand is going?

Allison: People are always looking for a trajectory from the brand — that it wasn’t very diverse and then it become diverse. Honestly, I think it’s had ebbs and flows, back and forth. It’s had moments where it really leaned into consumer and scholarly feedback. I’m thinking of the introduction of characters like Melody and Cécile, which happened in rapid succession and expanded the brand’s mission in telling Black and multiracial stories.


And then there were periods when, frankly, in response to different external or internal pressures, it reverted back. I know that there’s disappointment from fans with this latest character [Courtney Moore of 1980s California]. That it doesn’t really seem to go with what they’re stated recent mission on diversity and inclusion is.

Q. What is the future of the podcast? It seems you plan to pivot to some of the newer releases.

Allison: We’re not done. We met and bonded over Molly, but who knows what we discover when we revisit that? We’re going to chronologically go through all of the historical dolls that weren’t part of our childhood.

Listen to the American Girls podcast at americangirlspod.com.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.