Are you a Samantha? (No, not that one.)
How about a Molly? Josefina?
If these names mean anything to you, “American Girls,” a popular podcast created and hosted by two historians who earned their doctorates at UConn might be worth a listen.
Every other week, Allison Horrocks ’16 Ph.D. and Mary Mahoney ’18 Ph.D. delve into a book from the American Girl collection, bringing humor and their history-via-pop culture lens to the historical fiction of their childhoods.
American Girl is a line of dolls and books launched by Pleasant Company in 1986 and bought by Mattel in 1998. Each doll represents a fictional character from a different historical period and background, and has a dozen or so accompanying books about the character.
From its beginnings as a catalog-only operation to present day, where giant stores in New York City, Chicago, and 17 other U.S. cities not only sell the ever-expanding line of dolls (which now include dolls that look just like their owners and modern “Girl of the Year” dolls) but include doll hair salons and places to enjoy tea with your doll, American Girl has been part of the American retail zeitgeist for generations of children.
Horrocks and Mahoney, who both earned undergraduate degrees at Trinity College in 2009 but became friends while pursuing their Ph.D.s at UConn, bonded over their love for American Girl during time spent riding the red line shuttle bus or walking to their cars in W lot when the bus was late. Their conversational style set the tone for the podcast, they say, and their educations informed their approach.
“We were discovering new types of knowledge, new topics and approaches, but we had this bond over these dolls and these stories that we both loved as children, and it was kind of this nice connective tissue and I think also served as a signal that we took our work but not ourselves that seriously,” Horrocks says.
Mahoney says her work teaching survey courses as a graduate student also inspired elements of the podcast, which launched in February.
“I think a lot of times when people enter graduate programs it’s because they’ve been heavily influenced by research they did as an undergrad or monographs they read, but often when students take introductory survey courses … they’re drawn instead by things in pop culture that engage history that are of interest to them or at least pique their curiosity,” she says.
“So often I would use things in pop culture that would be common to most of us … as an entry point … to think of history in a new and different way, possibly, for them. That was something I did as a teacher at UConn and something we do in our show now.”
The hosts are analyzing each book of the series in historical chronological order, starting with Felicity Merriman of colonial Williamsburg, Va. They’ve completed her series, as well as Josefina Montoya’s, set in 1824 in New Mexico, and are well into the story of Kirsten Larson, a Swedish immigrant living in 1850s Minnesota.
They’ve managed to tap into the nostalgia of 30-somethings for the books and dolls that in many ways defined their youth, and not only explore the historical context of each book but create a community – for example, an episode on grief when discussing the Josefina books (Josefina’s mother died a year before her series begins) spurred a dialogue among listeners, the hosts say.
“To now have the listeners that we do, it’s just, it’s really stunning in ways that I can’t even express. Allison and I have received letters from people who say, ‘I’m currently being treated for cancer and I listen to your show while I’m getting chemo and it makes me smile,'” Mahoney says. “We record this show in our living rooms in sweatpants and people are taking us with them in these very serious scenes in their lives – so it’s a really intimate medium that people have treated as such and I think that’s both gratifying and really humbling.”
In addition to reaching out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, listeners send emails and voicemails and share stories on a Google form.
“I’ve said we feel really fortunate that pretty much every time we click on a blurred image that comes through a private [direct message], it’s a girl with a doll – which is not something a lot of people have as a social media experience,” Horrocks says.
Besides the overt content in the books, the American Girls have explored such topics as what makes a good friend and self-evolution.
“The girls in these books are creating themselves, and [with listeners] now re-reading them as adults, we get to take that seriously,” Mahoney says. “That process is still happening, you can keep creating and re-creating yourself. It’s not something to apologize for, it’s something to embrace.”
As young girls, Horrocks, a park ranger at Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Mahoney, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Trinity College in Hartford, say they never could’ve imagined they’d appear in The New York Times (the podcast was written up in August). But they did know some things back then, like that they would always identify with their Molly dolls.
When asked which American Girl they are by everyone who ever interviews them, it’s always the same: “Molly is the only answer, even though we can’t really explain why,” Mahoney says.
Molly McIntire, one of the three original American Girl dolls released in 1986 along with Kirsten and Samantha Parkington, is a spunky brunette with glasses who lives during World War II.
“I didn’t try to fail my eye exam [as a child] for nothing,” Horrocks deadpans. “I wanted to fail that exam because I wanted to look more like my doll. In a reversal of fortunes, I still have the bangs, she still has the bangs, I’m cutting them for us both. Now I have the glasses and hers are lost, so it’s like we’ve both grown up, you know?”
“Credit to Allison for working in the fact that she stress-cuts her own bangs into this interview,” Mahoney chimes in. “You know, I’m not wearing saddle shoes almost every day for no reason. I mean, we’re doing what we can with what we have and we’re kind of failing to measure up to Molly but… it’s the climb, as Miley [Cyrus] would say.”
Listen to the UConn 360 Podcast interview segment with Horrocks and Mahoney here: