First Posted: 4/4/2014
My older daughters were not drawn to playing with dolls. The one or two Barbies we had were ignored. If they weren’t playing outdoors, they were more apt to be dressing up in costumes, putting on shows or playing with Webkinz. But that doesn’t mean my household was immune to the curse of the American Girl Doll.
It was Christmas-shopping season when my oldest was five that my mother posed the question.
“Would she like an American Girl Doll for Christmas?”
I knew they were expensive and probably wouldn’t be appreciated, so I told my mother that Dani really showed no interest in dolls.
“Every girl needs to have an American Girl Doll,” she insisted.
This was when my mother had three granddaughters of doll-playing-age. Now that she has eight, she has probably reconsidered this being a mandatory purchase.
I reluctantly agreed and Nicki arrived on Christmas Day. She is a horse-riding, dog-loving ranch girl from Colorado who cost over a hundred dollars. Dani “oohed” and “aahed” for Nana, and then ran over to join her dad and her uncle in shooting practice. The men were taking turns with her new plastic archery set, the suction cup tips adhering to the glass sliding door.
For a lack of other ideas though, she also received Nicki’s $75 horse and several $40 outfits. That’s more than I spend on my clothes.
That spring we had our first girls’ weekend in the city. My mother, my two sisters and the six daughters we had between us at the time, shared adjoining hotel rooms and did the town. As anyone with daughters knows, a female childhood is not complete without a trip to The American Girl Doll Store in Manhattan. Like FAO Schwarz was to my childhood, this is seen as a rite of passage.
Shopping in this elegant, multi-level department store full of beautifully-dressed, bright-smiling, shiny haired creatures can be quite intimidating. It’s hard to tell the dolls from the children, as the patrons are dressed to the nines in pearls and bows, holding the hands of their fur-clad mothers who look as if they do this on a weekly basis. Trying to find an item I could afford in this overpriced doll factory, alongside women whose bejeweled arms were hauling stacks of dolls, outfits and accessories like they were at the Dollar General, would make any mother feel inferior.
The line of haughty mothers and daughters waiting to get their dolls into an appointment at the Doll Hair Salon or the photo studio snaked around level four. Even more popular was the reservation-only event going on downstairs, the $28 per person workshop, a Doll Pampering Spa-tacular.
I admit, I hadn’t yet learned much about the art of parental restraint. I had booked a birthday tea in the store’s restaurant, to celebrate my daughter turning six. This was actually a lovely event, and affordable by Manhattan standards. The dining room was decorated in lush satin.
There were black and white polka dots and stripes in shades of pink. The multi-tiered serving platters held finger sandwiches and later, intricately decorated cupcakes frosted with flowers and edible pearls. A harpist played in the corner and the waiters wore bow ties. The dainty porcelain cups, saucers and demitasse spoons made the tea the sweetest our girls had ever had. The cost of lunch was less than we would have spent at a diner in the city, leaving me wondering if it was a ploy to get people in the store, but extremely satisfied all the same. That part of the day created a lasting Manhattan memory, like those my mother tells us about from her days growing up in the city.
Like the boy in the book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” the American Girl curse snowballed out of control. When my mother insisted my younger daughter needed one too, along came Kaya. At least this one had historical relevance, her back story being about her life as an Indian girl who aspires to become a warrior in the 1700s. Over the next several years, Kaya acquired her husky dog companion, a teepee, a campfire scene with all the accessories and a fancy faux deer skin dress for special occasions.
Meanwhile, Nicki acquired skis with poles, a helmet and subsequently, a leg cast and crutches. Before long we had an entire toy box full of these overpriced items. That was nothing, I was told by my children, in comparison to their friends who had nine or 10 American Girl Dolls, complete with furniture and matching, full-sized kid outfits. I hadn’t realized it was important that girls and dolls be able to dress alike.
In defense of the dolls, at least they and their accessories are beautifully made. In addition, back in the first decade of the millennium, they had interesting and educational stories to tell. Felicity was a 1774 colonist girl caught between Loyalist and Patriot family and friends. Samantha, a child in 1853, dealt personally with the issues of women’s suffrage and child labor. Rebecca was from a Russian Jewish immigrant family trying to assimilate to America while holding on to their culture and traditions in 1910. Addy was a fugitive slave girl running for the North and freedom alongside her mother in the Civil War era.
However, since Mattel bought the line, the girls have changed noticeably in recent years. McKenna, Girl of the Year in 2012, is dealing with the trying issues of keeping her grades up while focusing on gymnastics. 2013’s Saige loves painting and riding horses and is waging a war to save the art class at her school. For a mere $120, you can get the newest American Girl Doll, Isabelle, who is into ballet, aspires to be a leotard-designer and has detachable pink-tipped highlights in her hair. Upgrade to the $134 version, and Isabelle’s ears will come pierced. Another option is the $259 Isabelle Starter Kit, fully equipped with the doll, a book about her life, a tiny dance bag, accessories and a dance outfit.
Believe it or not, the Starter Kit is back ordered.
Now that I have a third daughter, I’m anticipating the same pressure to conform with our suburban peer group in a few years. This time I will be prepared. On a recent trip to the basement, I found Nicki, forgotten in the bottom of a toy box. Her hair was matted and her face had undergone an extreme, black Sharpie-makeover some years back. I separated her hair from the other toys, propped her up in a seated position and cleaned her up the best I could. She didn’t exactly look like she had just attended the Spa-tacular Workshop, but at least she will be presentable when little Sarah starts asking if she can have one.