I'm not sure how it started, but suddenly my tomboy, craft loving, toy-and-doll-oblivious daughter started inquiring about American Girl dolls. "American what?" I asked. I now bow down in both writerly and parenting awe. The American Girl doll company most definitely has their finger on the pulse.
I didn't want to like them. I grew up with Madame Alexander dolls I really couldn't play with. I wasn't allowed Barbie dolls (okay, my mom gave in and bought me Hispanic Barbie eventually). It wasn't like I was poor Laura Ingalls playing with a doll with a corncob head or anything that desperate; it just wasn't something I did. Who knew that I'd spawn a daughter that would be into dolls? I didn't want to like American Girl dolls — they are expensive and have ludicrously perfect smiles and teeth. I sometimes get a Twilight Zone "Talking Tina" vibe when I look at them. But I like them.
American Girl dolls come in three kinds: babies, historical characters (with corresponding book series), and dolls that look like their little girl owners. The historical dolls have outfits and accoutrements to their time period. My favorite is "Julie" the child of divorce. The 1970s doll sports hippie clothing and a heart of gold. I tried to get my daughter to go for her as I could see that perhaps with our help, Julie might just forgo drugs and stay in college, but my daughter opted for Josefina — the Mexican American girl from 1874 Santa Fe, New Mexico. My daughter informed me that Josefina is probably dead or really, really old now and that's weird but she likes her anyway.
"Why do you like to play with American Girl dolls?" I probed.
" 'Cause they have all these details and they look like they are almost real," she said.
"Why did you pick Josefina?" I asked.
"She's brown like me," my daughter said matter-of-factly.
This is exactly what American Girl is able to play into. Gone are the days when we all had to settle for dolls that looked and acted like Nellie Olsen (Little House on the Prairie reference # 2). Instead, they can look like us. That is something I can think about buying into. I also like the idea of playing with dolls of a wide variety of backgrounds. Thankfully that's accomplished as well.
The Cost and Upkeep
One hundred dollars pretty much gets you in the door. Each outfit seems to cost almost $30. Some dolls have pets. Josefina's is a goat. These pets range from $28 to $70. Thankfully, my daughter has been saving up since Christmas for her share of the American Girl dream. I kept my word and made up the $26 difference between what she'd saved up and the final ticket price. "Why on earth do children need expensive toys like this?" I wondered out loud in the shop. No one in the American Girl store in the Grove in Los Angeles seemed to mind forking over the $100 plus.
The biggest upkeep issue on the dolls is the hair. You dampen it and re-do. Of course, an official brush or comb runs at least $8. If you go to one of the stores, they have a doll hair salon on the premises and their hair can be gussied up there.
So, just what are dolls teaching our daughters? I really don't want her to think that being a mommy is the be-all-end-all of experience. That of course, is the issue with any doll. This doll in particular has me worried because it's more expensive than anything in my house with the exception of my Fluevogs. I'm paranoid that my mother's dog might eat her or that someone will roll over in bed and crush her.
It's implicit in the price tag that these dolls are for middle to upper middle class girls only. My girlfriend who served as guide at the American Girl store at the Grove in Los Angeles informed me that most girls have way more than one of these dolls. I stood in front of a display of rectangular boxes, each housing a hundred-dollar doll. Wow. My daughter has already informed me she wants a second one because "all my friends have…" Who are these parents who buy multiple dolls?! Can they pay my student loan instead?
Still, I find myself saying under my breath, "It could be worse." it could have been Bratz or Barbie. I find myself wishing I had one when I was a kid.
Of little girl addictions to choose from: princesses, snarky TV personalities, random toxic plastic toys, Barbies, Bratz, and a gazillion Littlest Pet Shop whatnots, I think American Girl is about as wholesome as any mom could ask for. The details are incredibly life-like and intricate. The historical character dolls in particular give girls an appetite for history. The look-like-me dolls give a boost of self-esteem. (They even have dolls with braces headgear — impressive!)
And finally, my daughter has a doll she really wants to play with and take with her everywhere. What's more, my daughter loves the books that go with the dolls and is making her way through them. I'm hoping that the interest now will pay off later in real history books. I, sigh, approve.