Sunday, July 13, 2008

American Girls

I hope I don't offend those American Girl devotees out there. I like the historical concept; it's the marketing I hate. Also, I will be at the beach for a week with no email access (how will I survive!) so don't worry I'm ok just sunning myself, TPN and all.

I first heard about American Girls when I was in downtown Chicago with Marie and Sue. Sue was already hip to the phenomenon that was sweeping the nation. As with most things new and trendy, I was oblivious. I still use a paper calendar and address book for God's sake. Sue wanted to pick up a few souvenirs for her girls and, given that Chicago has one of the few American Girls stores in the country, she decided to get them there.

As we approached the store, I craned my neck to get a gander at the three story behemoth doll store before me. Clearly I was about to witness the ultimate marketing achievement in the history of the doll industry. Even Cabbage Patch Kids didn't come close to this; they settled for the lowly shelves at Toys-R-Us.

Marie, Sue, and I entered the store and went our separate ways. I marveled at all the dolls, doll outfits, matching outfits for doll owners etc. I liked that the dolls were each from a different historical period in American history. (Side bar: When I explained the historical period approach to Bill he said, "So there's like 100 dolls." "I said American History you goober. We haven't had 100 periods yet. My God what did you learn at Notre Dame?" I replied shaking my head, "Yeah, I hear they are coming out with a new one "Cro-Magnon girl" (though I realize that was Europe) or maybe they could try "Anasazi girl."). I tried to ignore the unbelievable price tags and focused my energies on the books that tell the stories of each doll, giving a sense of life during that historical period.

Then, I had to pee.

So I went downstairs to find the restroom. I walked past the stage where they put on "American Girl" shows and it started to feel a little creepy. Then while I was heeding nature's call I noticed a hook in the stall, specially designed to hold your American Girl while you went to the crapper. I marveled at the perfectionist tendencies that clearly went into the design of this most capitalist of establishments. Then I started thinking about the dirty hands picking up the hanging dolls and decided they clearly weren't perfectionist enough.

When I returned upstairs I found Marie. never one to mince words she asked, "Can you believe this place?"

"Yeah, it's a litttle scary. I like the books though."

"There's a tea room upstairs where you can eat with your doll and a beauty parlor for the dolls," she continued sounding as if she feared for the future of mankind. I stared at her dubiously. "I am not shitting you." However dismayed Marie and I might have been, we were clearly in the minority. The Chicago American Girl store was a hopping place. Apparently my socialist gene is a recessive trait.

As far as I knew, Amelia had no idea American Girls existed and I planned to keep it that way. Then this past Christmas she gave me her Santa list. Amelia's list always has only three items. "He always bring more than I ask for," she reasons. And the lists are always so cute: one year she asked for a doll, flowers, and a lollipop. Another year she asked for, among other things, an eraser for her dry erase board. There, at the top of the 2007's list, was "An American Girl." I really did not want to venture into this territory, but how could I not give her one of the only three things she requested? We had along talk about the expense of the doll and that Santa had a limit on what he could bring each child. She agreed that she was wiling to receive fewer gifts in exchange for the doll. We spent time on the American Girl website so she could select one and I could email Santa's head elf her request.

On Christmas morning she was delighted to unwrap one particular box and discover Felicity waiting inside for her. And I was happy because she was happy.

She recently got some money for her birthday and wanted to buy another American Girl doll. Honestly, she doesn't play with the one she has all that much. Again, we had a long talk about the expense and whether she was sure that's what she wanted to spend the money on. She gave it some thought for a while, perusing the American Girl catalog, which comes cleverly addressed to her. I encouraged her to get some more of the American Girl books, which she enjoys and function nicely as historical novels. "Maybe I can just get her accessories," she offered. "That sounds like a good idea," I replied, "And when I feel up to it, I will make her some dresses with some leftover material that I have."

When the American Girl movie came out I groaned, knowing I would have to take her. A friend picked us up Wednesday evening and we all went to see it (TPN bag and all). And I have to admit, the movie was sweet. It reminded me, in some ways, of my father's depression era stories (he's almost 76). I was pleasantly surprised. Stanley Tucci was very good in it as was Joan Cusack (who I love for being an actress who is not Hollywood beautiful, has an awkward stance, and a funny voice yet seems to outshine everyone else on the screen, for me at least. She's like a kooky aunt.).

Plus, Amelia let me hold her hand through the movie and that would have made even a bad movie worth sitting through.

While I am talking about movies, let me recommend Wall-E. It really is not a kid's movie (my kids liked it but when I asked them what the message was they only got the bottom layer -- the love story part which has it's own important lessons) but the genius is that it was marketed as one so that parents would go see it. It is profound but simultaneously dark and sweet. Incredibly apocalyptic, hope for humanity only fully blooms as the credits roll so don't leave until the end.


smkealy said...

I hear what you are saying about the rampant commercialism of the American Girl phenomenon, but in defense of us American Girl fans, I have to say that the day I spent with Nell, my sister-in-law and my niece at the American Girl store in NYC was one of the happiest and most fun days I have spent with Nell. The girls thoroughly enjoyed everything about the store, from watching their dolls get "made up" at the doll hair salon, to the theater show, to dinner in the restaurant, where their dolls sat in the doll chairs attached to the table. And we, as the adults, thoroughly enjoyed watching their enjoyment. In fact, I think the moms had more fun than the girls. It was a fun, girly day, and one I will always treasure. Hope you had a wonderful vacation. Love you. Sue

caroline said...

I love your astute - and funny! - comments on "culture of perfectionism" fostered in American Girl and other child-targeting consumer industries. In spite of my best efforts, both Jocelyn and Miriam have accumulated their own dolls, plus several outfits and accessories, all courtesy of doting gradparents. In any case, I feel better knowing darling Amelia also owns a doll- perhaps it's a good lesson in making smart consumer choices and caring for one's belongings? I guess I had my barbies when I was their age...
On a different note, thank you for pouring your energies and beautiful insights into this blog. You are someone I deeply respect, and I only wish I had gotten to know you better while I was in North Carolina. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you. Wishing you strength and peace of mind,