Of Dolls, Dollars and Sense:

Why I want to hate American Girl but can’t

Boxing Day, we took our 9-year-old daughter, Eden, to the American Girl store near Rockefeller Center. This was, on the surface, only a good idea if your idea of good is a line out the door, an angry scrum of parents and kids, and a dive straight into the heart of Ugly American Consumerism. But we did it anyway because we had given Eden the Samantha doll for Christmas (per her request) and the doll had a weird gap between her neck and her head that didn’t look intentional but rather the result of poor manufacturing. Eden found this physical deformity disturbing and I can’t say I blamed her. Something had to be done.

Earlier in the week, I had taken the subway up to the store at 9 a.m. to beat the crowds–a strategy that to my surprise actually worked. There was no line, and I was in and out of the store in fifteen minutes, no muss no fuss, except for the $115 hole in my wallet. This time, unfortunately, we did not plan as well, and we arrived at what figured to be the worst possible time: noon. Much to my surprise, there was no line, and the crowds inside were bearable given the crush of humanity jamming up Rockefeller Center. We asked for Customer Service and were directed to the Second Floor Doll Hospital.

There we were greeted by a very nice woman who took a look at Eden’s doll and said it would take about fifteen minutes to fix it, why not walk around the store and come back? Wonderful. We left the doll, and browsed for a while. When we came back, the nice woman who had helped us wasn’t around, but an even nicer woman, in a white doctor’s coat with a name tag that identified her as Dr. Diamond, asked if she could help us. Eden’s Samantha doll was in a wheelchair on a shelf behind her. Dr. Diamond retrieved the patient but the the doll’s problem was unresolved. The doctor then began talking, not to me or Alice, but to Eden, explaining the treatment options. She explained that there was a string in back that when you pulled on it, would tighten up the head and neck. She asked Eden if she would find this “minor operation” upsetting to watch. Eden shook her head. Dr. Diamond then performed the operation. Unfortunately, it did not cure the patient. The unsightly gap between head and neck remained.

Dr. Diamond then said to Eden, “I realize that you may be attached to this doll, but I’m wondering if a replacement doll might be okay?”

Eden was fine with a replacement. Dr. Diamond went away and shortly returned with a new in-the-box Samantha. She took the lid off the box and we all took a look at the factory-fresh doll. Same problem. Dr. Diamond excused herself again and came back shortly with three more boxes. We examined each of the dolls and each one had the same problem although not to the same degree. Throughout this process, Dr. Diamond, an attractive middle-aged woman with long graying hair, who we later found out was a musician and an artist when she wasn’t a doll doctor, had a bedside manner that was engaging, sweet and upbeat. During one of her brief excursions to find a replacement doll, Alice and I remarked that we wished our own doctors would take as much time and care with us.

Eventually, Eden picked the least problematic Samantha (apparently other American girl dolls are not beset with this affliction–clearly something went wrong on the production line with Samantha) and Dr. Diamond went about fixing her as best she could. When she was done, there was still a slight gap, and even though Eden said she was okay with it, Dr. Diamond had a brainstorm. She went away again, came back with a number of pretty ribbons, and after Eden picked out a nice turquoise one, she tied a choker around Samantha’s neck that concealed the gap.

I am not a fan on principle of a company that makes extremely expensive dolls and markets them with the manipulative skill of a creep hanging outside an elementary school holding a bag of candy, but I will grudgingly admit that American Girl has managed, beyond their genius marketing, to create in these dolls, each of whom has an inspiring life story, a positive role model for young girls. They have also brought talent and creativity to the books and movies used to help market their brand. It’s easy to be cynical, but there was nothing that was not genuine about the time and attention given by one of their employees to my 9-year-old daughter. And even if hiring a Dr. Diamond or any of the other nice people at the Doll Hospital is just an offshoot of a savvy corporate culture, it tells me that there is someone with a heart running this company, who understands their responsibility to the little girls who love their dolls.

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Originally published at peteralson.com on December 31, 2015.

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