As a little girl, I lived vicariously through my Barbie. When she wore her Bob Mackie halter gown, I was a disco queen. When she rode the elevator to the top of her three-story town home, I was a lady of leisure. And when she began making out with ripple-chested Malibu Ken on a pile of polyester pantsuits, well, it was time for me to pack Barbie away and focus my attention on the cover boys of Tiger Beat magazine.
Now, as the mother of boys, I don’t get to play with dolls much. But I’ve heard that today’s little girls covet a series of supertoys so beloved they could knock Barbie from her plastic penthouse of popularity.
They’re American Girl dolls. Pre-pubescent girls go wild for the 18-inch Mattel dolls, which come packaged with quaint storybooks offering “girl-sized” perspectives on various eras and events in American history. There’s Minnesota pioneer Kirsten, Colonial girl Felicity, turn-of-the-century orphan Samantha, and others.
Squat and squishable, American Girls are downright wholesome compared to Mattel’s Barbie, basically a three-dimensional mudflap girl with flirty pink pumps and a bitchin’ convertible. But that hasn’t slowed sales. Since their creation in 1986, more than 12 million American Girl dolls have been sold — and at exorbitant prices. The dolls cost $87, plus more than $20 for a housecoat, riding habit, or pinafore and snood. Add another $62 if you want Samantha’s Victorian lemonade set or Felicity’s Windsor writing chair.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” says a 22-year-old babysitter whose female charges are obsessed with the dolls. “They want to swim with them, they want to watch television with them. They want to look like them.”
The brand has a line called Just Like You which allows girls to purchase doppelganger dolls with 25 different hair/eye/skin color combinations. Girls can also — and here’s where I start to get nauseous — wear clothing identical to that of their dolls. One Goleta teacher had a student who brought her “twin” American Girl doll to school five days in a row, and each day the pair had new, matching outfits. “I couldn’t look at the doll all week,” she said, “without expecting it to take on some Chuckie-like behavior.”
Indeed, there’s something creepy about these moppets. I’m troubled that they were created by a woman named Pleasant, and that each character hails from a year ending in 4: 1764, 1824, 1934.
What’s weirder — what’s arguably cult-like about the whole phenomenon — are the palatial retail stores that serve as meccas for the dolls’ most fervent admirers. Located in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (at the swanky Grove mall), American Girl Place has a cafe where dolls are seated in “treat seat” high chairs and served tea in china cups. Personal shoppers help girls choose flame-retardant paisley pajamas to match those of their dolls, then escort the toys to the doll hair salon, where stylists give them updos and facials. A photo studio captures doll-and-human portraits.
I spoke with several Santa Barbara moms who’ve made pilgrimages to the L.A. store with their delirious daughters in tow. A friend of mine, who is otherwise quite sane, confessed she and her 8-year-old spent five freaking hours in the place nibbling something called “bitty bites,” watching a live musical show, and, yes, having her doll’s hair braided — a privilege for which there is often a long wait.
“My daughter even had the traumatic experience of leaving her doll at the ‘hospital’ there, for a lazy eye condition,” she says. “The doll arrived in the mail all fixed with an entirely new head attached. A bit gruesome, actually.”
American Girl doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities; some of the books address surprisingly adult topics. One doll/character is a fugitive slave. Another works in a factory. Another has a best friend who dies from cholera. But if girls are going to live vicariously through their dolls, moms would rather their daughters relate to adversity-laden freckle-faces than to Barbie.
“It’s healthier than playing with a pint-sized Playboy centerfold doll,” says a friend of mine, the mother of two girls. Another praises American Girl for encouraging reading and sparking an interest in history. “It helps keep girls young and wholesome,” she says, “and teaches them good life lessons.”
That may be true, at least until Mattel execs decide to introduce an American Boy to the line. A strapping young law student named Peter, perhaps — a bright-eyed conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
In any case, mothers of young girls should be prepared for the inevitable day when they find Felicity in a compromising position on a pile of pinafore dresses. Because pioneer tales and tea parties can only hold an American girl’s interest for so long; sooner or later, their innocence is history.