Friday, December 17, 2010

What a Doll

by Sheila Connolly

It seems that the gift-giving season is upon us, and there are American Girls everywhere. No, I don't mean humans—I mean the dolls. It's hard to turn around without finding yourself face to face with some, and that includes on the back page of the New York Times magazine. Actually that's not surprising, because that location probably best reaches the target purchasing audience: grandmothers.

I've always considered American Girl dolls "grandmother dolls," because they are the perfect gift to tell Grandma to give her little grand-darling (ideally, one single darling, and Grandma had better have done darn well during the market slump to afford this habit), and she can continue to add accessories and pets and furniture forever, or until the girl outgrows dolls. Which happens all too soon.

Don't get me wrongBI'm a big fan of the American Girl dolls. My daughter (now nearly 26) had two, who have been "asleep" in the attic for a while, until I let them out for their photo session. Meet Molly and Addie, circa mid 1990s. What they're waiting for, I don't know, but they, and their extended wardrobes, and their adorable trunk, are just too darn nice to throw away.

I admire the company's marketing. They started slowly and built carefully. They expanded into books to accompany their dolls, which I applaud (anything that gets kids reading is fine with me). Their community has grown to include almost every conceivable ethnic type, and the dolls span centuries, so you get a little history thrown in.

Recently I opened my local newspaper's magazine and was confronted by yet another full-page American Girl ad, suggesting that you (well, a child known to you the readerByou know, the one with the credit card) go online and create your own doll.

You can choose not only eye color, hair color and texture, skin color, but you can also decide whether your doll needs glasses, has braces, and wears earrings. You can give her a horse, and a t-shirt with a picture of the horse.

As a writer I looked at this and thought, what would a child want? Would she choose to recreate herself, or would she want to build an imaginary friend? And in a vague way the concept of choosing a kind of Mini-Me troubled me. It's like asking a child to build an alter ego, or to generate a split personality right before your eyes. I assume most children, at least the younger ones, talk to their dolls; would this then be like talking to themselves? Slightly older, and they will act out scenarios for the dolls, with or without companion dolls (note: they are no male American Girl dolls, so it's kind of a gender-biased little universe they've made). In that case, are you projecting yourself on your doll? Does she become the better, smarter, faster you?

Let's take the other choice: creating a doll to be your best friend. What do you choose? Do you model the doll on your flesh-and-blood best friend of the moment? If you're too young you may not realize that these intense relationships can quickly reverse themselves, and then you'd be stuck with a reminder of your lost BFF. Person with credit card, you may want to step in with some timely suggestions here.

Would a politically correct child choose a doll of different ethnicity? And don't forget--if your child has a disability, there's even a wheelchair available.

Are you wondering about price? The basic doll costs you $95. The glasses are $8, the pierced earrings another $14. Sorry, the braces were sold out (really?). My hypothetical doll is now up to $123, and I haven't even bought her furniture or a pony. Check out the pets: oops, dogs outnumber cats. Who decided that one? Anyway, if you want a calico kitten, it's another $20.

And if you like the cupcake slippers, they're $20. I'm trying to remember the last time I paid that much for slippers for me, and I'm much larger than an American Girl doll.

But back to the message...American Girl has done well in providing an array of choices in dolls for a generation now. They make a quality product, and the dolls have been popular. Design-your-own is a logical step in this computer-driven world. But it still comes down to a basic question: who are you and who do you want to be? Do you want a mirror or a friend? Maybe it's better than young girls face that with a safe doll before they have to confront it in the real world.

Maybe I'll go talk to Addie and Molly. It's nice to see them again.

I think Addie borrowed Molly's outfit.  That's what friends are for, right?


caryn said...

Our daughter has Samatha sitting on the top shelf in her room. Even though Beth is now an adult, occasionally
I notice that her clothes have been changed. I think it's done seasonally. Samantha really became a member of the family. Even the boys would say things like,"is Samamntha coming with us to the beach or is she going to stay here and read?"
It was one of the best presents she ever received and it wasn't from a grandparent. I definitely see the dolls in our 3 granddaughters future. (BTW, even though we have Samantha, I'm pretty sure the outfit your Molly has on we also own.)

Anonymous said...

At least she has a reasonable figure. At least I think she does under all those clothes.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, my daughter-in-law didn't wait for Grandma. My granddaughters already have two girl dolls and a boy from American Girl, so you must be wrong about that. None of them are either Asian to match the girls' looks nor the 1914 Jewish doll to make a bow to their dad's heritage. And speaking of boy dolls, I thought the moment in Toy Story 3 when Barbie's Ken gets accused of being a girl toy was hilarious--and true. BTW, the American Girl books seem to show up regularly on Edgar nominee lists, and at least one of the characters appeared in a movie.

Barb Ross said...

My daughter (also 26) had Samantha and Addie. There's still here in the house along with all their stuff. I'm told the older one our daughters have, made before the company was sold to Mattel are more valuable.

The rage with all the young mothers I know is taking their daughters for tea at American Girl place. The one in Manhattan is crazy.

Unknown said...

My granddaughters chose the doll they wanted. They all had one. Some had two. I bought the patterns and made clothing for them. That cut the cost. The best thing (for me) was that they're very playable dolls. The child didn't need to handle them carefully. She could play with them - like a child.

I think they originally had some baby boys. I guess they didn't grow up.

Sheila Connolly said...

We bought the two for our daughter (no, Molly and Addie aren't mine!), at her request.

I grew up with the Madame Alexander dolls from F.A.O. Schwarz, because my grandmother lived in walking distance. That was before those dolls became collectibles--they were kind of the pre-Barbies, and the first one I had came with a wedding dress and veil (and heels, of course).

My daughter also went through a Barbie phase. Guess what: they're all still in the attic too. As are the My Little Ponies and the Beanie Babies.

Kuzlin said...

I bought the American Girl dolls for my daughter. But I also purchased a "My Twin" doll for her, where we selected hair color and style, eye color, complexion color, face type, etc., and then sent in a picture of her so they could match. She loved carrying around this doll that looked like her. She's 21 now, but what a neat collector's item she has to pass down...look what Mommy/Grandma looked like when she was 10.

Sandra Parshall said...

After reading the comments here, I feel as if I've missed something because I never had one of these dolls! I never played much with dolls as a child. I know some moms at the height of the feminist era wouldn't allow their daughters to have dolls -- they gave them "boy" toys instead. Not a big step forward, IMO.

Sheila Connolly said...

Sandy, don't feel bad. In the late 1950s I got annoyed that there were no male dolls (pre-Ken) and made my own--Flint McCullough. (I was much into Wagon Train.) Since I was using pine twigs and Pla-doh, somehow he came out anatomically correct (at least, more so than Ken). It's all in how you use the dolls, and your imagination.

I would have liked a real tool kit, though.