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Learning to be an American Girl at the American Girl Place
Back in Third Grade, I was a part of a book club consisting of five members. We'd meet every Wednesday after school at Avery's house, drink Orangina, and listen to Avery's mother read her out-of-print books. To be honest, I never really paid attention to the stories read to us. In fact, what I looked forward to every Wednesday after school was not the books read, but the savoring taste of Orangina and the time we spent playing with dolls in Avery's bedroom.
On Avery's windowseat sat five American Girl dolls. They were each eighteen-inches long, had huggable soft bodies, eyes that closed when in repose, and thick glossy hair. Every week, we'd play “house” with these dolls, with each of us acting as different dolls.
During December, around the advent of my ninth birthday, I readied myself to tell my parents that I wanted an American Girl Doll. When my mom came to pick me up from Avery's house after book club, I held out one of Avery's American Girl dolls, which she named Samantha. “Everyone has these...but, they're a hundred dollars,” I cautiously explained.
As expected, Mom was completely turned off by the price of the doll. Because I was never one to whine, I quickly turned to plan B. Plan B wasn't about getting a doll--rather, it was finding a way to experience having a doll: I wanted to be a part of the world where girls bought new outfits for their dolls and brought them everywhere with them. At the school library, I furtively snatched an order slip from an American Girl catalog, and mailed it out on my own. Every month, when the American Girl catalog arrived, I'd sit on my couch and relish the images of the dolls with their perfectly styled hair, abundance of accessories, furniture, fake pets, and fake food. Over time, I became an expert of the American Girl vocabulary: Coconut was the name of the fluffy white toy cup, the doll was made of vinyl, and if your doll ever got “injured” (aka its head falling off or its body getting ripped), you could send your doll to the American Girl Hospital in Manhattan to have it fixed for $80. There was nothing at home that fed more sweetness to my eyes than the American Girl catalog. Many days I would make my mom read them with me by the kitchen as she cooked dinner. At first, she was amused by the gargantuan prices of the dolls, of why any sane parent would pay $34 for a plastic doll bath tub with plastic bubbles. Over time, it came to her that I was obsessed.
On my ninth birthday, my parents took me out to a birthday dinner at a Thai Restaurant on Beekman Avenue in Lower Manhattan. They then gave me the freedom to pick a place to go--any place. Right away, I said, “The American Girl Place.” And so together, we took the subway train to 5th avenue and 59th street, where we walked ten blocks to the American Girl Place.
Right away, I could tell from my parents' eyes as they saw the price labels besides each product on display, that these dolls were way out of our league.
“I just want to look. It's okay if we don't buy anything,” I told my parents. While other girls my age clutched dolls in their arms running from section to section picking out what they wanted, we walked through the American Girl Place as if we were touring a museum. As we took the escalator down to the lobby, my dad said, “Alright, it's getting late. We gotta go.”
When we left the American Girl Place, I felt perfectly content. One thing that I learned as a ten year old is that if you set your expectations lower, you will be happier.
“Wow, I'm surprised you kept your promise,” my dad said. Perhaps because of my adherence to my promise that night, on the Christmas morning, I woke up to a brand new brunette American Girl Doll besides my bed. It was the best Christmas surprise ever.
My American Girl Doll was a “Today Doll,” part of a series of modern-looking dolls that were made to look similar to young how girls carry themselves today. The “Today Doll” series offer a variety of looks so that girls can pick a doll that resembles them the most. Back then, there were three different “face molds” in the “Today Doll” series to accommodate for girls of different ethnicities. The face mold with the greatest variety of eye colors, skin colors, and hair colors to choose from was the Caucasian mold, although they didn't call it that. The face mold for African American dolls (although they named it “dark-skin, dark brown eyes”) had wide cheeks, a flat nose, and large lips. Two dolls that had this face mold--one had curly brown hair, and the other had relaxed brown hair. There was also one doll with an Asian face-mold (they called it “black hair, light skin, black eyes”) which had puffy cheeks, small lips, slanted eyes, and straight black hair. This doll was discontinued in 2011, perhaps because not many young Asian American girls shop at American Girl, and probably because not all Asians have super light skin and slanted eyes (American Girl Wikia).
I named my doll Massie. I changed up its hairstyle every couple of weeks, and brought her with me everywhere I went. My mom insisted that I bring a large backpack for storage if I intended to bring Massie out, fearing that a someone would threaten me to take her away. “How many families can afford a $110 doll?” She explained. And so I obeyed and brought a backpack with me everywhere I went.
Very frequently, I'd rename my doll. Massie was first renamed to Katie (my favorite teacher at the time), then Grace (a new friend I had made at recess), then finally, Isabella (just because I wished that was my name at the time). But after a while, I stopped renaming it. I also stopped brushing its hair, and carrying it with me wherever I went.
“See, we knew it was just a phase!” Mom teased me. I was overwhelmed with guilt. The truth was that I still loved my doll, but I just didn't feel like taking it with me everywhere I went anymore. Feeling that I had to honor my doll in some way, I set it next to a lamp on my bedside table in its equestrian outfit, its hair braided into two pigtails so that I wouldn't have to worry about its hair getting frazzled even over a couple of months.
It became easier over the years to forget that I even had an American Girl Doll. Many days I would arrive home from school, walk straight past the doll without looking, to start a long night of homework. Sometimes, it would even take a friend to say, “Oh! You have an American Girl Doll? My parents never let me get one of those,” to remind me of that magical christmas morning when I was ten years old. One day, though, maybe because so many years had passed since I held the doll in my hands, I plopped it on my lap and brushed its hair. Almost eighteen years old, I suddenly had the urge to revisit the American Girl Place to relive those days of my nine-year-old self when I desired something with all my heart.
On a chilly Saturday in December of 2013, two hours before a Christmas dinner party, I decided that with the time I could have all for myself, I'd go to the American Girl Place. On my way to 50th Street and Fifth, being only five feet tall, I felt like a dwarf in the midst of tall Manhattanites. At around two blocks away from the store, I could already see parents holding large red bags that said “American Girl Place” in white, Times Roman font. When I finally got to the American Girl Place that stood at the turn of the block, there was a railing that families were expected to stay behind if they wanted to enter the store. This led to a formation of a line that not only made the store seem like it was busier than it really was, but also so that the little girls obsessed with the store wouldn't trample on top of each other to enter.
Inside the store, the crowd didn't get any smaller than it was outside, but I no longer felt like a dwarf. Instead, I towered over scurrying little girls who wore ear muffs, furry scarves and plaid peacoats. Their hair was as beautiful as that of the dolls on display. Behind them, their parents trudged, struggling to keep up while holding large boxes of doll items in their arms. On the right wing of the first floor, there was an American Girl bookstore that resembled the kids section at Barnes and Noble. It seemed that at the American Girl Place, the bookstore served as a safe haven for little boys who were dragged along with their sisters. As their sisters were experiencing severe brainwashing by the beautiful doll set ups all throughout the stores, the boys made the best of their time here sitting at the bookstore, educating themselves about training bras and proper girl manners from books such as All About Growing Up, and A Smart Girl's Guide to Manners.
On the left wing of the first floor was what I remembered as the “Today Doll” section, which had been renamed “My American Girl.” This wing, where girls could buy dolls and pick accessories so that their dolls could look exactly like them (and vice versa), was completely stuffed. In the center was a showcase of all the look-alike dolls that girls could choose from. There were more hair colors skin colors now than before--yet, when one mother asked for her little girl who had a thumb in her mouth: “My daughter needs brown hair with blue eyes and freckles, does that exist?” The saleswoman smiled sorrowfully said no, and directed them to alternate options. Some looks were simply too exotic to be profitable as an American Girl doll. Those who could afford it could order doll customized to look like them, but for others--such as myself seven years ago--the other option would be to change yourself to look like your doll. Because they didn't have an Asian doll that didn't have bangs straight across, I cut my own bangs to look like my doll. In third grade, nothing was cooler than carrying around a doll that looked just like yourself.
The “Today Doll” wing offered accessories and clothing for dolls of all kinds. “Make your doll unique!” An advertisement posted on a shelf said. There was an “Is she studious?” rack that had boxes of doll glasses and plastic books that didn't open, but could be placed in the doll hand's grip. The “Is She Artsy?” rack had a mini paintbrushes and paint palettes with goops of paint that wouldn't fall off. The “Is she sporty” rack had mini soccer balls and basketball hoops that the dolls would never be able to shoot the mini basketball into, along with assorted furry scrunchies for high ponytails.
“I want this...I want that!” The girls ran around and said. The mothers would help their daughters articulate exactly what they sought to buy to the saleswomen. “Does the Doll Bath Set come with a brush? Does this Doll Salon Chair recline?”
Not all girls had the same pleasant experience at the American Girl Place.
“I need all day to pick my favorite thing here, because I know if I get anything here you won't let me buy anything else for the month!” One girl with a sparkly rainbow headband said passive aggressively to her mother.
“I counted exactly how much we'll need to spend!! Please, please, I'll give you all my money mommy?” Another said. Even though this was exactly where they wanted to be, having to juggle between everything that they wanted with the money that they gave them became an enormous struggle. I know back then, I wanted to prove to my parents even as we shopped that despite wanting a $110 doll, I was no spoiled American girl. We were in denial.
The Historical Dolls
By taking the escalator up to the fourth floor of the American Girl Place, one can travel back in time with the wide range of historical American Girl dolls. There is a doll for almost every time period. There was Kaya the Nez Perce Native from 1764, Josefina the “hopeful” Mexican girl from 1824, Addy the “courageous” from the Civil War, Kit from the Great Depression, and Julie the hippie from 1974. Julie even had an Asian best friend, Ivy, which made her even more hippy! I never minded that there wasn't an Asian historical doll with its own story. However, it was unsettling that when an Asian historical doll was finally made, it was only featured as an accessory belonging to a blonde hippie.
Each historical doll stood in a glass showcase besides all the accessories that one could buy. You could buy Kaya's teepee, for example, for $125. If you were getting a historical doll for the first time, then the least you could spend at the store was $110 for the doll and a book. But that means you'd have to settle for the doll without its a triple-strand necklace that resembled porcupine quills, its durable woven bag that featured designs inspired by Nez Perce weavings, and its matching belt pouch. For its “precious accessories,” as described by the price label, you would have to pay an extra $24. These prices undoubtedly scare many parents, who believed until now that $6 Barbies would be enough to make their little girl happy. But with American Girl dolls, which all have childlike faces, makeup-free eyes, and proportionate curveless bodies--chubby arms, even--parents can be assured that their daughters won't grow up being brainwashed by the toxic beauty standards presented by Barbie dolls (American Girl).
Next to the historical dolls were mini museum showcases of artifacts from the historical doll's time period. In front of Great Depression Kit's museum showcase, parents crouched down with their daughters, explaining the significance of each artifact item. “See, in the 30's, if you wanted to hand in your homework, you'd have to type it up on a typewriter,” one mother explained. These educational experiences helped take away some of the parents' guilt about purchasing an $110 doll for their daughters.
On my way to the escalator down, a trail of little girls, each holding a doll, stopped in the middle of the store and gathered for a group picture. In the middle was was a girl wearing a sparkly tiara. It then occurred to me that this was a “shopping-themed” birthday party--That's why their mothers were invited too. They were then headed to the American Girl cafe, where they could dine with their dolls besides their dolls set up on a doll dining seat.
The American Girl Place has a history of twenty-seven years, and its store had been open for fifteen years. Up to date, over twenty-three million dolls had been sold (American Girl). The large price-tag may lead one to quickly see the dolls as overpriced and elitist toys. However, something about the American Girl dolls compels parents, no matter what economic cicumstance, to purchase them for their daughters. Perhaps it is because of the peer pressure their daughters face at school.
Elizabeth Mansfield, mother of a ten year old daughter who owns the hippie Julie doll explained: “I think it's ridiculous that these dolls cost so much, but my daughter goes to school in Manhattan, and all of her friends have an American Girl Doll. No parents want their kids to feel left out,” Mansfield said.
While that is one explanation, there are many things in the world that a good parent wouldn't pay for, no matter how much a child wanted it. So what is it, exactly, that has gotten parents so addicted to American Girl as well?
American Girl has defined what being an “American” girl should be like, and parents, wanting the best for their children, will do anything to fulfill this idealism. American Girl products demonstrate to parents that a girl isn't living the “American” life if she doesn't take bubble baths, have a pet puppy, wear thick headbands, ski, dress up for the holidays, go to spas, or go horseback riding. There is even a breakfast set named “Delicious Breakfast,” of plastic pastries and drinks, implying to girls that if they don't drink orange juice, eat pancakes with sausage and eggs, along with waffles and syrup and toast, then their breakfast is subpar according to American standards. And ultimately, the very dolls sold in the American Girl Place, along with all the girls in the stores that are each clutching onto their dolls, send the message to parents that their daughters aren't really American until they own an American Girl doll.
When I first visited the American Girl Place seven years ago, I felt completely out of place, but at the same time, elated, to be at the store where all of my friends' birthday, Christmas, and Hannukah wishes came true. Even though I didn't live the American Girl life back then, having only immigrated to America for three years, being surrounded by all these girls who did live it made me feel as though I was receiving royal treatment for a day.
Over the course of seven years, my parents have made progress in their careers. Today, we are much more “American” than we were before. I used to feel like my American Girl Doll was better than I: it had thicker clothes, a fluffy white puppy, and velvety dresses for the holidays. I envied the lifestyle my doll lived, and perhaps that is also why I cut my hair to look like my doll. As we further assimilated into the American society, I could see that I was gradually becoming my doll. Eventually, just like my doll, I learned how to ski, ride a horse, and dress up for Christmas. Although at seventeen, I have outgrown the days of playing with dolls, my American Girl Doll continues to sit at my bedside, serving as a reminder of my blessed childhood.