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Faith in Vermont: American Girl Dolls and the Decline of Civilization

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Posted on May 5, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Grandparents get to do whatever they want -- that's my philosophy.

It wasn't always; like most first-time parents, I tended to be overly controlling when it came to toys, food, and naps. But my children are blessed with four grandparents who love them and respect reasonable boundaries, and I realized that, after the arduous task of raising my husband and me, these grandparents are entitled to spoil their grandchildren. So these days, my default response to grandparent inquiries is: "Sure!"

And that's how we wound up getting my daughters' dolls' hair styled at the American Girl store in Tysons Corner, Virginia. ("You're doing what?" my husband asked, incredulous, before we left. "Grandparents get to do whatever they want," I shrugged.)

For those who haven't been around a young girl in three decades, American Girl dolls are 18-inch-tall molded plastic figures. The dolls were introduced in 1986, and were sold only by catalogue. The original dolls were characters from various periods in American history. The company has since added a modern "Girl of the Year" doll, a line of design-your-own dolls, and the "Bitty Babies" collection, but the historical dolls remain central to the brand.

The eight historical American Girl dolls currently available include a member of the 1764 Nez Perce tribe, a slave girl from 1864, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1914 New York, and a girl growing up during the Great Depression. The books that accompany these dolls do not skirt the ugly parts of American history; rather, they make these events palatable by painting them with a "girl power" brush. The world of the American Girl doll is one in which the ravages of racism, poverty, and war can be overcome with pluck, determination, and kindness.

A basic American Girl doll, with accompanying paperback novel, retails for $115.

We have three American Girl dolls in our house, bestowed upon my daughters by my parents. On birthdays and holidays, we often receive additional clothing, accessories, or books related to these American Girl dolls. (I take comfort in the fact that my parents bought two of our dolls secondhand at a yard sale, so that we do not actually have over $345 worth of doll under our roof.)

As the American Girl brand has grown, the company added retail stores. There are now 19 American Girl stores across the United States, one in Canada, and plans for additional stores in the works.

There is no American Girl store in Vermont; the closest retail location is in Boston. But when it turned out that my parents, my two oldest daughters, and I would be traveling to a family wedding in Virginia in mid-April, a visit to the local American Girl store was added to the agenda.

My daughters enjoy their American Girl dolls, although, like most toys, the dolls spend a significant amount of time sitting neglected in the corner while my children dig in the mud with sticks. When my daughters do pick up their dolls, it's to change their clothes, "style" their hair, or smear lip gloss across their faces. So, although we have two characters from the Great Depression and one from upstate New York in 1812, all three look like they've just returned from a weekend reggae festival.

We lugged our three bedraggled dolls to the American Girl store in the Tysons Corner Center mall. To call it a "store" is an understatement: It's a temple. The store has two levels, connected by escalator. The decor is a symphony of pink and red, with crystal bubble chandeliers hanging from the cathedral ceiling. The  American Girl dolls and their affiliated products are displayed in glass cases. Employees wearing earpieces drift around silently, while upbeat, girl-affirming pop music ("My Girl," "Unwritten") plays from the speakers.

Our first stop was the doll beauty salon on the shop's lower level. There, my daughters were invited to choose hairstyles (ranging from $10-25) from the American Girl style book. (I declined the $5 "face cleaning;" I can access a wet paper towel for free.) Each doll was seated in a doll-sized barber's chair while doll beauticians (actual people) sprayed, brushed, braided, and curled their hair.

While the dolls were being coiffed, we perused the vast array of American Girl merchandise throughout the store. Each American Girl doll has multiple outfits (along with matching or "inspired by" outfits for full-sized girls), pets, furniture, transportation (ranging from horses to VW bugs), books, DVDs, and accessories. There are American Girl uniforms for ballet, gymnastics, soccer, horseback riding, skiing (downhill only), swimming, martial arts, tennis, skateboarding, and -- yes -- chicken keeping. In an effort to make modern girls feel more comfortable with their differences, the company helpfully offers a doll-sized headgear and retainer, glasses, a wheelchair, crutches and a cast, and -- my personal favorite -- the $20 "Allergy-Free Lunch" kit, which features a plastic smoothie, vegetables, two kebabs, a medical bracelet, allergy stickers, and "a faux allergy shot, just in case."

This attention to detail is evident throughout the store. After my daughters' dolls were styled, we all sought refreshment at the Bistro, which serves drinks, snacks, and lunch under a light fixture resembling an enormous pink flower. Our server provided special chairs for the dolls that clipped on to the counter's edge, and doll-sized mugs and plates. Want a brownie? It comes with a smaller brownie for your doll. Even the bathroom stalls have special hooks on which to hang your doll while you do your business. (I was disappointed that there wasn't a doll-sized toilet.)

Should you be overwhelmed by it all, the American Girl store offers a personal shopping service.

We spent two hours at the American Girl store, and I noticed that all of the adults and children there had the same dazed expression, the same glazed eyes. Like many "special" parent-child activities (Disneyland, for instance), the pressure to have a meaningful experience is exhausting. The Bistro even provides a box of "Question Cards" for all those awkward silences ("What is your first memory?" "What do you wish you could change about yourself?") "Please smile," a mother next to us at the Bistro implored her daughter.

Having come out on the other side, here are my conclusions:

-I am slightly jealous that American Girl dolls and stores weren't around when I was a child; I would have loved them.

-If this is what my daughters are into right now, I am grateful; before long, they'll be requesting body piercings and hair dye.

-I am fairly certain that the end of civilization is near. When we begin investing this much time, money, and effort into our dolls, it's a sign that we're trying to distract ourselves from something; that we are in denial of the uncomfortable aspects of what our culture is becoming. I picture Marie Antoinette snapping, "Let them eat cake!" as she offers her American Girl doll a plastic gluten- and peanut-free lunch kebab.

By the way, our dolls' hair is dreadlocked again. Of course.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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