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American Girl’s ‘Girl of the Year’ tries to balance phone, family, friends, farm

January 5, 2019 GMT

American Girl’s 2019 “Girl of the Year,” has a story that’s all too common in today’s America: She’s trying hard to balance the digital world and the real world.

Blaire Wilson, the new doll from Middleton-based American Girl, became available Jan. 1. She’s a young chef-in-training “who loves bringing people together.”

That digital life/real life balance isn’t just a struggle for children, it’s difficult terrain for everyone, said American Girl spokesperson Julie Parks.

“It’s a good reminder,” Parks said. The idea the company is trying to stress is not about eliminating screen time. “This is about finding that healthy balance of tech time and real time with friends.”

The message is to be present and mindful when talking to people “in our everyday,” Parks said.

Pleasant Rowland created American Girl dolls in Downtown Madison in 1986, giving each doll a narrative fitting an era in America’s history.

Rowland eventually moved the company to Middleton. She retired in 2000, two years after selling the company to toy giant Mattel for $700 million. In 2015, American Girl sales hit a record $572 million, but sales dropped 21 percent in 2017.

Are falling sales the result of young girls getting swept up in the digital age?

Parks said that anything that vies for girls’ leisure time is technically American Girl’s competition. “And the explosion of digital and social communication is definitely one of them,” she said.

But, American Girl is a brand rooted in storytelling, and the company is also reaching out digitally with its message of empowerment, Parks said. “We are looking at how we can be more relevant and digitally connected to girls’ lives, but in a balanced and healthy way.”

Doll play has been around for centuries and the company doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, she said. “There’s a simplicity to it. There’s nurturing play that we do as humans -- girls and boys. And I think that how we do it at American Girl makes all the difference, and we don’t see that changing.”

American Girl’s characters and stories are designed to help girls think about their own character and who they want to be, the company said in a statement.

Promotional materials describe Blaire as “a natural people person,” who “excels at gathering people around the dinner table.”

Blaire’s story is found in a chapter book series written by Jennifer Castle and published by Scholastic. In two books, Blaire cooks and helps decorate her family’s sustainable farm and farm-to-table bed-and-breakfast in upstate New York.

“When the opportunity to plan the farm’s first wedding arises, Blaire jumps in with gusto,” according to American Girl. “However, between overextending herself to create the perfect farm-fancy event and a newly diagnosed food sensitivity that makes her self-conscious, Blaire finds herself more engaged on her devices than at real-life gatherings with others.

“Ultimately, through the help of her family and friends, Blaire finds a healthy balance and learns the value of being fully present at every occasion.”

The 18-inch Blaire doll has green eyes and red, curly hair. She was unveiled Dec. 31 on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.”

American Girl has come out with a Girl of the Year for 18 years, but there have only been 17 characters because the first one, which came out in 2001, was around for two years, Parks said.

“Every one is meant to represent and celebrate girls today,” she said.

American Girl started out with the historical characters and their stories, teaching girls about important times in America’s history. Soon, customers began asking for up-to-date characters.

“But we knew when we did that, the girl, she’d be history the following year,” Parks said. So, to stay in touch with trends, the company decided to come out with a Girl of the Year.

American Girl’s classic historical characters, Girl of the Year, and Truly Me doll lines are aimed at girls ages 8 and up. Its Bitty Baby dolls are marketed for those 3 and up, with the newer WellieWishers line targeted to those between 5 and 7.

As for the Girl of the Year, Parks said, “Our goal is to create a sort of friend for girls. And that is somebody who’s both relatable and inspirational, too.”