It was not good news for me when an American Girl doll store opened up less than three hours’ drive from my home city a few years ago. I have two tween daughters, and I’ve been suckered into buying a lot of American Girls and small faux-vintage gear over the years. When that store opened, I could see more suckerage coming from miles away.
It wasn’t even the nostalgia that got me. A lifelong history nerd, I would have been a prime target for American Girl when it launched, but I was too old, already in high school. The Kirstens and Samanthas of yesteryear (now nauseatingly renamed as “BeForever” dolls) registered not at all with me in the 1990s, when I was busy listening to Liz Phair and avoiding entering the miserable job market by going to graduate school.
Thanks to that grad-school training, I can easily deconstruct the gender and class politics of American Girl, but I was powerless to resist the big-eyed urgings of my older daughter when she wanted to go to the store for a special birthday trip a few years ago. I live in fear that my youngest will ask for the same birthday trip this year.
One hot summer day, we packed up a ratty-haired Caroline doll on a mission to get her smoothed and coiffed and to enjoy a lunch at the American Girl café. We had, of course, made Caroline an appointment at the salon. Hair is a big thing — no, bigger than that — at the American Girl store. Hair betrays how well a girl has “taken care” of her doll. This emphasis made me feel insecure even though the shamefully tangled Caroline my child was clutching was not, in fact, my doll.
Despite the fact that I googled instructions for doll detangling spray and actually made the concoction (TL;DR: put diluted Downy in a spray bottle) and my daughter employed it on her American Girl, her doll’s hair was not shiny and perfect like so many of the dolls the other, more well-heeled girls are clutching, let alone the display dolls in their boxes. Indeed, my daughter’s own, human hair was notably less shiny and well-arranged than that of nearly all the dolls there and all the other kids.
When I noticed that, I ducked into the bathroom to brush my own hair. In the stalls there are shiny, slightly creepy chrome hooks meant for dangling your doll in sanitary space while you are on the toilet, like meat hooks in a slaughterhouse. Anyway, brushing my hair makes me feel a little more together. I don’t do a lot of styling, truth be told, and there may have been more hair products available at the store for American Girls than I have used in my entire 40-something-year lifespan.
The American Girls were also more tastefully dressed than my kid, who for her big outing wore pink short shorts and a sequined T-shirt with a picture of a cat on it. This outfit probably contravenes the advice in Doll Photo Shoot, the book on how to take photos with your doll, for sale in the American Girl store. Seriously, there was a book of tips for how to take pictures of an inanimate human-shaped object.
In addition to fancy photo shoots, the store suggested a number of enriching activities my daughter’s American Girl doll could have been outfitted for (for a fee). Most of these were activities to which I have, as yet, failed to expose my own human children. These included but were not limited to: lacrosse; figure skating; cello and flute lessons (my kids have taken piano! Really! But I don’t make them practice as much as those American Girls probably do); skateboarding; horseback riding on one’s very own palomino and feeding said palomino with fake hay bales; volleyball; training puppies to do tricks. Also available, in case any of these activities cause bodily harm, are American Girl casts, crutches, and a wheelchair. The doll-sized accouterments for these activities may be more expensive than human-sized ones for kids.
We wandered around scoping out the various dolls my daughter didn’t already own. I got a little obsessed with Julie, the doll from 1974. Julie is a little older than I am, but Julie might actually have been my babysitter at some point.
Everything Julie owns is something I keenly longed for back in the day. Julie has a fucking disco ball. Julie has an egg chair and a cross-body leather purse with a floppy top and embroidered flowers. Julie has a patchwork peasant top where the fabrics are the exact same prints my mom used to make janky homemade Christmas ornaments. I think I still have some of those scraps in my sewing basket.
Julie has a lunchbox with a miniature Hostess cupcake in it, along with what appear to be plastic Pringles. Do you know what I got for a postlunch treat in the actual 1970s? Homemade fruit leather, that’s what. Nobody wanted to trade their Hostess cupcake for that. Julie has a bike with a banana seat and a white basket with daisies on it. At least I had that bike basket. Julie has a canopy bed with swishy bead curtains hanging from the canopy. I hope Julie was not also smoking a fat J in that bed.
Julie also had an aqua-colored VW bug (since discontinued, but available for a mere $299.95 on eBay) with the license plate SF GIRL. Julie is so totally not old enough to drive. She is, at most, eleven. What is she doing with that sweet Bug? And if she really lives in San Francisco can she drive stick on those hills? I think not, my young friends.
This reminds me that every Julie I knew in high school (granted, 15 years after Julie’s 1974 heyday) was a total bitch. This Julie is a bitch too, obviously, and a rich girl at that, one whose parents bought her a Bug in the best color before she was even old enough to drive? Screw that. There was no way I was going to buy that overprivileged blonde girl for my daughter. She wasn’t scrappy like Kit in the Depression, or patriotic like Molly in World War II, and she sure as hell didn’t pilot a boat after her dad was captured in the War of 1812 like Caroline or escape from slavery like Addy. Julie probably just babysat the likes of me and lorded it over me with her Bug. She is the 70s prototype of all those pampered Just Like Me dolls upstairs.
Finally, toward the end of our visit, I saw a girl whose hair was rattier and more tangled than my child’s. Granted, her mom had four kids with her, two of whom were bored boys complaining vociferously about being there and one of whom was a newborn infant in a carrier, so that mom had a pretty good excuse for not brushing her daughter’s hair. But it made me feel better anyway.
That family had included two of the only three boys I saw during our three-plus hours in the American Girl store. The other, also a sibling of a girl, was about three. As he and his mom and sister walked through the Bitty Baby section (which does sell boy dolls, though only as part of a boy-girl pair set called Bitty Twins), he piped up saying he would like a doll. The mom scornfully questioned him and said she’d never heard of a boy wanting a doll.
I wanted to go grab Julie and get her to play her original vinyl, in the hot pink sleeve, of “Free To Be You and Me.” Surely, she must have had the best children’s album of the 1970s for that portable turntable? We could have sung along to “William Wants a Doll.” But that ultra-70s message of equality and freedom isn’t exactly part of the heavy marketing at the American Girl store. That’s okay. I had the whole car ride home with my daughter to blast and sing along with Marlo Thomas as an antidote to Julie. After all, as Marlo teaches us, parents are people — even if the American Girl store tries to turn us into nothing more than semi-historical characters who happen to have working credit cards.