Let me tell you why I smiled when I read the recent news that Middleton-based American Girl is introducing a boy, named Logan, to its popular line of dolls.
It’s a pretty good story, if I do say so.
The year was 1979, late summer, and I was returning to Madison after spending a few months in Florida. I had graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison the previous spring with a degree in English and a vague idea of trying to start a career as a freelance journalist.
I had sold a couple of articles while still in school—a book review to the Milwaukee Journal, and a piece about the rise of the UW men’s hockey program to Madison Magazine, when the magazine was in its infancy.
I got $30 for the book review and $50 for the hockey article. I remember announcing that on graduating I was going to be a freelance writer. My girlfriend’s father said, “Writing $30 book reviews?”
I dodged the issue by announcing (I was good at announcements, as only a 23-year-old can be) that I was off to Key West, Florida—Hemingway country—to read and write and contemplate the cosmos, length of stay unknown.
The trip was one of the best things I ever did for myself (but that’s a story for another day). When I came back a few months later, my goal was still to freelance fulltime. While I was there I’d sold a story on the Hemingway House in Key West to The Capital Times, racking up another $30.
My flight from Key West included a connection in Chicago. On the short Chicago-to-Madison leg I began a conversation with the woman seated next to me. She was very friendly, and wanted to know if I was in school.
“Just graduated,” I said. “I am hoping to be a writer.” I told her about the freelance articles I had published.
The woman smiled and said maybe she could help. She was on the board of directors of Wisconsin Trails magazine, and would be happy to make an introduction to its editor and publisher, Howard Mead—which she did.
At some point, not long after that first meeting, she invited me to her small office on Pinckney Street to discuss an idea.
She was starting a magazine, she said, aimed at girls. My recollection is that the target age was young teens.
She wanted me to write an article for her new publication explaining the sport of football to girls. She could pay me $50.
I wrote the piece, and she paid me. Somewhere along the line—it might have been that first day in her office—I remember questioning the wisdom of neglecting half of her potential audience by just targeting girls.
“Boys read too,” I said, or something like that.
Looking back on a life filled with stupid remarks, I think that one is the prize winner.
Yes, I tried to talk Pleasant Rowland out of targeting her business to girls. I think Pleasant just smiled, thanked me for my input and ignored it.
Just how successfully she ignored it I was able to view from a front row seat, as we both stayed in Madison. In 1986, she founded American Girl, selling expensive historical dolls. In 1998, when she sold her company—still targeted at girls—Mattel paid $700 million for it.
I think you now know why I smiled when I picked up The New York Times earlier this month and read the story about American Girl introducing a boy doll named Logan. “Some parents wanted a doll for their boys to play with,” the Times story noted.
Should I feel vindicated now that Pleasant’s former company is reaching out to boys after all these years? Of course not. I wish Logan luck, but he wouldn’t be a news story if my seatmate all those years ago on the flight from Chicago hadn’t decided to roll the dice on a business targeted at girls.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.