Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, September 14, 2006

American Girls

James had discovered nothing less than "the American girl" -- as a social phenomenon, a fact, a type. She had figured in novels before, but never had she stood in fiction so pertly and so bravely, smoothing her dress and asking the world to pay court to her. Hawthorne's American girl in Rome, Howell's American Girl in Venice, had not been contrasted with Europe; and those Europeans who were reading Louisa May Alcott had a picture of the American girl largely in her domestic surroundings. The rustling young ladies on the verandahs at Saratoga, the busy beauties of "uptown" New York, the graceful, idle females of Newport, suddenly became Henry's great subject: and all by the simple turn of exhibiting them in their finery, as in all the stages of their timidity or insolence, their doubt or their triumph -- at the moment of their encounter with Europe and their refusal to yield their heritage of American innocence.

-- Leon Edel, Henry James: The Conquest of London, 1870-1881

Move over, Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer. There's a new American Girl in town, poised to sweep all before her in her conquest of a brave new world.

I knew very little about the American Girl company when, this summer, while browsing a bookstore with my own girls, I suggested that my older daughter, who has recently become interested in "chapter books," might like to try reading an American Girl book. I was vaguely aware that American Girl books were narratives of various fictional "American Girl" characters who live during important periods of American history. Each American girl character -- Kaya, Felicity, Kirsten, Josefina, Addy, Samantha, Kit, and Molly -- has a series of books devoted to her. Along with the fiction books, one can also purchase companion non-fiction books that describe, for instance, Samantha's world in greater historical detail.

It all sounded like a good thing. And it was, initially. My daughter seemed so interested that I let her pick out four different books, introducing four different American Girl characters, to buy. She chose to start with Meet Samantha, and she read it faithfully and enthusiastically every day. In the mean time, I had skimmed an article somewhere about the opening of the new American Girl store in Los Angeles. So when my daughter came to me one morning, about a week after she had bought her books, and excitedly announced that she had just finished Meet Samantha, I suggested -- oh so foolishly, as it turned out -- that we all go to the American Girl Place and get her a small reward. "Can I get a doll?" she asked, beaming with pride in her accomplishment. "Sure, sweetie," I answered, imagining it would set me back about the same as a Barbie doll, and thus innocently and unwittingly sealing my doom.

We've been here before. Swank outdoor mall. A fountain with waters that swing to Ol' Blue Eyes. Attendants in the restrooms. Women of a certain age toting tiny coiffed dogs in bright-hued dog carriers masquerading as purses. There's something new this time, though. Something I haven't noticed before. Girls, lots of girls, girls with shining eyes and purposeful gazes, American girls, with parents and nannies in tow, striding westward, toward some Shangri La that lies just beyond the horizon, past the Tommy Bahama and Pottery Barn Kids, in the white-gold afternoon haze.

American Girl Place is a vast temple of consumerism in which ponytailed priestesses perform their sacred rites with the assistance of dutiful and solemn acolytes who hold aloft Visas instead of candles. There's a huge first floor where girls can buy dolls that look like them, where they can buy clothes to match their dolls' clothes, where they can visit the photo studio with their dolls, or make appointments at the doll hair salon. The second floor boasts, among other things, the American Girl Cafe (serving brunch, lunch, tea, and dinner -- reservations required days or weeks in advance), a theater featuring a live musical performance of The American Girls Revue (at thirty bucks a head), and the complete line of historical dolls and accessories. We're talkin' serious accessories.

As the girls skip cheerfully and inexorably toward Felicity and Samantha and Molly and Kit, my temples begin to throb, and a sense of being utterly trapped surfs in on the waves of nausea that converge and break like high tide in the pit of my stomach. Is this how those corrupt Europeans felt when confronted with Daisy Miller and her literary sisters -- that there was something inscrutable in the young girl's charming, open smile and heedless chucking of social convention that simply couldn't be innocence? That's something of what I feel as I am beckoned by my own American girls toward these new Daisies and Isabels (or Kits and Mollys) with their fixed eyes and their unfathomable expressions and their plucky poses.

I'm laughing now, of course, but there's a subject here for a much darker post, and maybe I'll write it. A post about the apotheosis of the American girl as product and consumer. About books as advertisements for expensive doll's furniture. About the irony of creating characters who care about the plight of the poor in order to create consumers who spend more in one shot on a doll's rolltop desk than they'd spend on a half-year sponsorship of a needy child in Africa. About our strange passivity in the face of the marketplace, such that our acceptance of the free market itself seems to entail our silence, and our refusal to judge consumer preferences. About a culture in which wanting and getting reign supreme and all of the "oughts" and "shoulds" which used to hem in our worst impulses are so much baggage from our Puritan past.

But hey, do you think they sell a Puritan American Girl doll? They could call her Hester . . .

So what's the conclusion to my little American Girl saga? Did I explain to the girls that we could take the money we would have spent on two American Girls and give it to a family who needed food and clothing, or to a little girl who didn't have any dolls at all? Yes, I did explain it to the girls, half-heartedly, smelling defeat. My own American girls continued to look up at me, innocently and expectantly. You promised.

I grabbed the boxes and got in line, taking refuge in the idea of the unbroken promise, furtively eyeing the parents ahead of me.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting article about the American Girl
Place (registration required, unfortunately) that Stewdog passed along to me. The author, Dan Neil, has reservations similar to mine, but he also, and rather eloquently, records a secondary reaction that I'm in complete sympathy with :

As a commercial phenomenon, American Girl is as charming as it is appalling. With annual sales growth of 15%, the company racked up $436 million in revenue last year, with an estimated $100 million profit. For all its retro rag-doll simplicity, American Girl is mega-commerce, exploiting children's most primal hoarding instincts—the sort of collect-them-all mania that has provided Barbie with an income comparable to the GNP of oil-producing nations. American Girl is yet another gateway drug to the addiction of mass consumerism.

So said my cynical self. But then at some point walking around the store, I fell in love.

There is much to commend in the American Girl universe. The company's mainline products are his-torically themed dolls, such as Molly, a little girl growing up during World War II; Kit, who endures the hardships of the Great Depression and eventually becomes a cub reporter (she's my favorite); Addy, an escaped slave who makes her way north on the Underground Railroad; and Kaya, a horse-loving little girl of the Nez Perce tribe growing up in 1764 (not a particularly auspicious time for Native Americans).

It's not simply that these dolls are educational, civics lessons in Cabbage Patch drag. It's that these dolls' personal narratives take place at some time other than the present—the oppressive and hyper-sexualized, relentlessly trendy, precociously cynical reality that most children and their toys have to contend with. Forget Barbie and her late-model Corvette. Have you ever seen Bratz dolls? I give you the Bratz Wicked Twiins Ciara and Diona, raccoon-eyed, gothy tweens in platform boots looking like—in the beautiful phrase from "Sex in the City"—baby prostitutes.

I think that children, especially girls, are railroaded into their sexual awakening, a kind of premature psychic menarche that robs them of some fraction of their childhood. As a result, even the most progressive-minded fathers can be driven by the princess-making impulse, the desire to keep their girls naïve, if only for another day. Such fathers would be only too grateful to pull out their platinum cards at the American Girl counter. Plenty of mothers would too.

I like the article, but I was struck, as I mentioned in the comment to Jeff below, "by the writer's blindness to the idea that the safe haven he envisions is available primarily to girls from privileged families where the Bratz mentality is unlikely to resonate, anyway, and second, by the article's implicit assumption that parents' choices in this matter are almost entirely circumscribed by the market. As though it's either American Girls or Bratz."


Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Ah, too bad KM didn't post BEFORE promising a doll to the princesses. If she had searched for:

"american girl" dolls boycott

she would have seen that these dolls are on the front of the culture wars. See, for example, the Wiki's criticism section for a very brief summary.

September 14, 2006 5:50 AM  
Blogger stewdog said...

I've looked over the internet material on this boycott. I personally think it is a tempest in a teapot. Girls Inc, formally Girls Clubs, seems to be a worthwhile organization with some views that don't jibe with mine. However, the donations from Mattell were supposedly earmarked, and this organization is not NARAL.
But given the cost of these dolls and their accessories, if my kids were younger, I would feign moral outrage and boycott to save the money :-)

September 14, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

For what it's worth, KM, I don't think accepting a free market requres that we not judge the preferences of others. You yourself think that the Bratz dolls are terribly crass, and I agree with you, but you've never called for them to be banned.

I think it's wise to question whether the freakish, hyper-commercialized experience of being in one of those American Girl stores undermines the positive message of the books. And there's certainly nothing wrong with trying to change the market by expressing opinions of your own.

September 14, 2006 1:43 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks, Jeff. You're right, of course, that the free market -- which I'm obviously in favor of -- doesn't require that we not judge the preferences of others. But there's a certain hyper-libertarian take on the free market that seems to be creeping into mainstream discourse, or maybe I'm just imagining things (an entirely plausible explanation, alas), so that critiques of commercialism are construed as critiques of the free market itself.

And I'm certainly not calling for either American Girls or Bratz to be banned.

Anyway, it was myself I was judging here, and, believe me, I have a lot to answer for (more, even, than the post implies).

Stewdog just sent me an interesting article about the opening of that store that appeared in the L.A. Times. The writer, originally skeptical about the hyper-commercialized atmosphere, falls in love with the store because it offers a safe haven from the Bratzian world of vulgar, hyper-sexualized childhood. That's kind of how I felt about the place, too. But I was struck first, by the writer's blindness to the idea that the safe haven he envisions is available primarily to girls from privileged families where the Bratz mentality is unlikely to resonate, anyway, and second, by the article's implicit assumption that parents' choices in this matter are almost entirely circumscribed by the market. As though it's either American Girls or Bratz. And I don't mean to be preachy, since that's the mentality I myself tend to fall into, no matter how often I try to remind myself that there are alternatives for my children's leisure time that lie beyond and outside the market.

September 14, 2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

And thanks for the info, CIV! As I said, I knew very little about the products or the store before I got there.

September 14, 2006 4:33 PM  

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