In 1986, schoolteacher Pleasant Rowland began to publish a series of books about nine-year-old girls growing up at important moments in American history – and dolls crafted in the likeness of each book’s protagonist.
Early characters ranged from the spunky Molly McIntire, who hosts a British refugee during the Second World War, to the courageous Addy Walker, who liberates herself from slavery. Children could read Molly and Addy’s stories, but also cuddle these characters, brush their hair, and change their period-accurate clothing.
After Mattel acquired the company, American Girl’s focus expanded to modern tales of female empowerment. Though Molly and Addy are still available, a discerning customer might now opt for Corinne Tan, a jock who stands up to racist bullies at her local ski hill, or Evette Peeters, an environmentalist who masterminds a clean-up of the Anacostia River with her biracial family.
Each American Girl novel is punctuated by a profile of some real-world girl who is making a positive change in her community. The message, clear to any young reader, is that you, too, can make your river cleaner, your ski resort more diverse. Real go-getters can even pick up a non-fiction Smart Girl’s Guide — to Race & Inclusion, or Body Image, or generally Making a Difference — for even more tips on healing the world and themselves.
American Girl defines and distinguishes itself by its rigorous intersectional feminism. It enjoys a truly rare degree of esteem and approval among feminist fans old enough to have outgrown – and grown critical of – their more problematic girlhood enthusiasms, like Disney’s damsels in distress, or the manipulative tweens of the Clique novels. Fans flock to pro-choice rallies outside the Supreme Court bearing images of Julie Albright, Kit Kittredge, and Courtney Moore on their picket signs.
Of course, American Girl also, simply, sells toys. Not all of these toys are virtuous. Sometimes, a girl simply wants to send Corinne to the salon, or strap Molly and her beagle into a scooter with a dog-sized sidecar for a joyride on the open road. So it’s fine, perhaps, if the American Girl® Harry Potter™ Ultimate Collection doesn’t contribute much to the company’s girl empowerment project.
What the Ultimate Collection does contribute to is the substantial wealth of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Once a single parent subsisting on public assistance, Rowling now possesses a fortune of £850 million and lately has wielded her singular cultural capital to promote violent and anti-trans far-right extremism.
Here, then, is a question: Is it ethical for American Girl to partner with JK Rowling? And is it ethical for you, the adult doll collector or nine-year-old doll enthusiast, to go along with the partnership? To purchase a Gryffindor sweater for Kit, or perhaps a plush owl for Addy?
This is not a question of banning the Harry Potter books, nor is it a question of separating the art from the artist. Rather, it’s a matter of contracting with the artist to manufacture children’s toys – which represent certain details of the art – and then selling those toys and paying royalties to the artist.
And the artist, as you may or may not know, has been roundly condemned – by civil rights groups like GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, by over 1,500 members of the United Kingdom and Ireland’s publishing industry, and even by Daniel Radcliffe, who portrayed Harry Potter in the blockbuster film series. In Rowling’s corner: the Republican Party and Vladimir Putin.
When, days after launching an illegal invasion and murdering 2,571 innocent civilians, a dictator likens the denunciations of the global community to the criticisms leveled at Rowling, it ought to be clear that we’re no longer in the realm of individual conscience.
JK Rowling’s Crusade Against Trans People
The Harry Potter novels have long been controversial across the political spectrum, but more recently, Rowling has become an outspoken regurgitator of far-right talking points.
Her greatest hits: She endorses conversion therapy and opposes the provision of gender-affirming care, including even non-medical interventions like chest binders for children and teenagers. She believes trans women ought to be incarcerated alongside men, which would leave these women vulnerable to being raped and assaulted. She justifies this belief by claiming, without evidence, that trans women “retain the same patterns of sex offending/violence” as cis men. (In fact, trans people are four times more likely than cis people to be victims of violent crime, and the mortality rate of trans women is three times that of cis women.)
Rowling also possesses the wildly retrograde belief that allowing trans women to work in caring professions, such as nursing, would endanger female patients. She cites the (imaginary) statistic that “98-99% of sexual abusers are male.” (Though cis men do account for the vast majority of sexual abusers, sexual abuse by cis women is also common. Trans women do not form a statistically significant number of the medical professionals known to have abused patients.)
She also advocates banning trans women from women’s sports, comparing “the physical advantage conferred by an athlete going through male puberty then competing against women” to Lance Armstrong using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles.
Importantly, these are not just transphobic arguments – they are misogynistic ones. Rowling claims to be a feminist, but her argument about the “physical advantage conferred by an athlete going through male puberty” is quintessentially anti-feminist. It’s the party line of the cigar-chomping owners and operators of the major leagues who conspire, to this day, to ban women from men’s playing fields. And the notion that caregiving professions should remain the sole domain of women, that men have no business nursing or babysitting, is straight out of the 1950s.
This is not the only evidence that Rowling’s commitment to feminism is flimsy. “Feminism is rotten at the core,” tweeted Matt Walsh, a pundit and self-proclaimed fascist, in 2021. “There is no good feminism. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen to western civilization.” Earlier this year, Rowling complimented Walsh, saying that his film What Is A Woman? had done “a good job exposing the incoherence of gender identity theory and some of the harms it’s done.”
Here, “gender identity theory” is a euphemism for LGBTQ people, whom Walsh openly loathes. “Millions of kids are being converted to LGBT through sexual indoctrination at home and at school,” he rails, sounding like a modern Anita Bryant, or a male Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).
In sharp contrast to Rowling’s praise, many a major, reputable publication describes What Is A Woman? as “science denying propaganda” which treats “cruel, mindless prejudices” as “‘common sense’” while portraying LGBTQ people as “immoral… [threats to] the Western Christian way of life.”
And all of this evidence, frankly, is just the glimmering shard of the iceberg’s tip on the homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic ideas she has touted.
And she is a liability.
Much of the cast of the Harry Potter films has publicly denounced her. HBO did not invite her to participate in the 2021 Return to Hogwarts special which reunited the films’ cast and crew. Clothing brand MeUndies issued an apology for producing a line of Harry Potter products, declaring that they “strongly disagree with [Rowling’s] comments” and “have already set up an internal Diversity & Equity Board to… help vet potential partners moving forward.”
What American Girl Has Said About Rowling
Reached for comment by LGBTQ Nation, American Girl issued the following statement:
“American Girl was built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion. Harry Potter has some of the world’s most beloved and popular characters and a collaboration has long been asked for by our mutual fans. American Girl remains committed to creating stories and products that inspire our fans and champion empathy, equality, and mutual respect.”
On American Girl’s Facebook page, any person who expresses concern about Rowling’s bigotry receives an identical reply from the brand’s social media team: “Thank you for reaching out. Your comments have been shared with the appropriate teams at AG.”
The company seems to reserve warmth and friendliness for Harry Potter fans. (A woman named Shannon: “Harry Potter is awesome! Love JKR!” American Girl: “Thank you, Shannon! 😍” )
American Girl’s public strategy appears to have been to simply ignore customers concerned by Rowling’s bigoted opinions. Depressingly, it seems to be working for them just fine. There has been no coverage of the Harry Potter line by any of the outlets that have published recent, fawning trend pieces on American Girl. None of the celebrities and influencers who work with American Girl have condemned the brand’s decision to partner with Rowling. On social media, most American Girl customers express one of the following opinions:
- JK Rowling isn’t a bigot;
- JK Rowling is a bigot, and so, proudly, am I;
- This Harry Potter merchandise will look pretty on my dolls, and it will make my daughter happy, and I simply do not think about trans people in my day-to-day life.
Both American Girl and their customers also miss an important point: Rowling’s bigotry is a threat not just to trans women, but to all women.
No feminist publicly compliments a man who proclaims feminism “rotten at the core” and “one of the worst things to ever happen to western civilization.”
No advocate for diversity and inclusion sends “big love” to the campaign director of a far-right Catholic group that advocates against abortion and marriage equality.
No woman who supports women argues that her sex is biologically disadvantaged against men. American Girl is – has always been – a company with a feminist project. So why is the name of someone who has perpetuated such bigotry on American Girl merchandise?
Rowling has embraced the far-right lie of biological disadvantage: the notion that women’s bodies and their brains are naturally inferior to those of men. She has thrown her arms around it, all in the service of attacking the vanishingly small number of trans women and girls who play sports.
But the idea has a long history – one that American Girl explicitly refutes.
The company’s Julie Albright doll, who hails from San Francisco circa the 1970s, arrives with a clipboard, pen, and petition to join her school’s boys’ basketball team.
The first novel in Julie’s series concludes with a detailed non-fiction discussion of Title IX.
“When Julie was growing up,” the book says, “many people didn’t think girls could do the same things boys did.” Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in public schools, the book goes on to say, which meant that “schools… had to provide athletic teams for girls – or else let girls play on the boys’ teams.” Julie triumphs, in the end, and joins the boys’ team.
Having Its Cake and Eating it Too
Today, trans girls are fighting for the same right to equality in sports that Julie won so long ago. Kentucky recently passed a law banning trans girls from participation on girls’ sports teams; the law’s lone target, the literal only trans girl on a sports team in the entire state, was a seventh-grader who wanted to play field hockey for her middle school.
In March, Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, vetoed a similar bill, noting that, of Utah’s 750,000 student-athletes, only four identified as trans, and only one was involved in girls’ sports.
“That’s what all of this is about,” he wrote. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”
And rarely has so much hard-won feminist ground been ceded to far-right misogynists in service of a more stupid endeavor than banning a single thirteen-year-old from playing field hockey.
So, yes, Rowling’s worldview harms cis girls. But it hits trans girls, already a tiny and despised minority, first and hardest. Some of American Girl’s customers – not many, but some – are boys. Boys who simply love dolls and can’t comprehend the utter socio-cultural shellacking they’re in for. A few may not be boys at all, but girls in “male” bodies, consigned to those bodies and to a world that despises them. And there is great comfort, for those girls, in a doll. A friend.
In recent years, American Girl has demonstrated enthusiastic support for LGBTQ children. A revamped Smart Girl’s Guide to Crushes includes advice for young lesbians and bi girls. One progressive-minded playset sports a Pride-flag-studded EQUALITY sticker.
Kira, the 2021 Girl of the Year doll, even came with a novel detailing a trip to her married aunts’ wildlife sanctuary. When the anti-gay organization One Million Moms made a stink about Kira’s aunts, American Girl defended the characters.
“As a brand, we’ve always strived to share the message that there’s no ‘magic recipe’ for a family,” said spokesperson Julie Parks, ‘and that families can be made up of all kinds of ingredients – and each is unique and lovely.” She went on: “American Girl was built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion, and we remain committed to empowering the next generation of girls who will emerge as leaders who value empathy, equality, and respect.”
The fate of the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the push for transgender liberation – none of this hinges on American Girl’s decision to sell a Gryffindor scarf, or any one person’s private decision to purchase that scarf. For that matter, perhaps, no purchasing decision a person can make at American Girl Place will bend the moral arc of the universe one iota either way. American Girl, after all, is owned by Mattel. Whether you buy Julie Albright or a certain other notorious blonde doll, your money ultimately benefits the same corporation.
But American Girl really does stand for something. This is what distinguishes it from the many corporations that sell Harry Potter toys. There is no Build-A-Bear who arrives with a clipboard and feminist petition, no Lego set with lesbian aunts. American Girl cannot have its cake and eat it too: support diversity and inclusion, give money to Rowling.
In a recent exchange on Twitter, someone asked Rowling how she sleeps at night. Rowling’s response? “I read my most recent royalty cheques and find the pain goes away pretty quickly.”
When she opens her next envelope, she can count on at least a few of those dollars being from American Girl.