Recently, there was a big blowout party for the American Girl store opening at Stanford Mall. Our youngest daughter was ready to go hand over her piggy bank. I was ready with my rant: In short, American Girl is 99% UnAmerican.
Those of you who have managed to escape this over-priced, over-hyped craze that possesses girls at around age 5 and doesn’t let go for a decade, let me bring you in: this 18” tall, made in China, plastic and fabric doll is de rigueur for the doll-age crowd. And sometimes for the crowd’s moms too. And it’s not just one doll. No, there is Caroline, Ivy, Ruthie, Kaya, Kit, Addie, Josephia, Rebecca. And those are just a few in the “historical characters” department. There are dolls of the year, baby dolls, mix-and-match twin dolls. And if you can’t find a doll among this lineup that speaks to you, you can design your own. It’s a sneak-peak at genetically designing your babies. You can choose its skin color, hair color, hair texture, eye color. You get the idea.
After you pick a doll and plunk down the $110 to $124 for one of these beauties, you can start filling out its universe. Start with the books, which are not bad, actually. They are historic or contemporary fiction, some are mystery and advice books, and seem to be at least better written than, say, Disney books. That’s a low bar, and AG hurdles it handily.
But a girl can’t live on books alone. She needs clothes ($68 for a holiday dress, for a start); she needs furniture (Rebecca’s bed: $125); she needs hair accessories ($12-$49) and ski gear ($38) and horses ($75). To be truly dolled up, she needs her hair done. Any AG girl store will set you up with an appointment for a $25 hair do-up. If she gets “sick,” she can be sent to the “Doll Hospital,” where, for some undisclosed fee, they will do minor or major surgery, and return the doll back to its worried-sick owner before the holidays. She might still need a wheelchair ($38) for a while. And you may have to buy her a spa chair ($110) so she doesn’t miss her beauty regimen while she recovers.
It’s madness. Who can afford these outrageous prices? Maybe they should call it the 1 percent girl. Maybe, if as the name suggests and image portrays, these AGs and their accessories were lovingly made in middle-America by mom and pop artisans, you could understand $90 for a Lilliputian table and chair. But it’s commissioned by Mattel and made in China! How are people not outraged by the hypocrisy?
What hypocrisy, yawn my girls. In fact, with all these temptations, how is a girl not to start a-dreamin’? Ours were no different. Daughter #1 begged for an AG for two years before I got her an 18″ very un-American doll. $30 from Target. It snoozed her alarm, but didn’t shut it off. The pleading soon resumed and continued, until, in a wild stroke of luck (okay, and some talent!), she was able to earn a bunch of money dancing for an opera. With bank account freshly flush, the first thing she bought herself was an AG. Fair enough.
#2 started her campaign the day #1 got her AG. She made a pretty reasonable case that it is unreasonable to expect a kid to earn this much money, especially as we didn’t give allowances then and didn’t pay for chores. What was she to do? First she didn’t get picked for the opera and now this? Still, we fought back for 2 years. But on Christmas after she turned 9, we surprised her. Or, shall we say, she surprised us. She is just not into dolls anymore, she announced, and tossed it over to #3.
The surprise continued when we found that #3, instead of being satisfied, was only just bitten. She wanted the full compliment. Dresses, pajamas, furniture, babies, more dolls, more of everything. I tell her she is my American Girl, but she has an Indian-American mother, and our breed just doesn’t buy overpriced doll gear. I tell her to ask her sisters to sew clothes for her dolls, and to fashion furniture out of cardboard. It was good for her, I told her. I might as well have been talking to a plastic doll.
Fast forward three years. A shift in allowance policy in our house allowed #3 to gather $86 to spend on whatever she wants. After a year of anticipation, the much-ballyhooed AG store was finally opening at Stanford mall. She took her sisters and dad for the grand opening. I held off initially, but joined later when curiosity got the better of me.
I went to the mall knowing that I would be collecting material for my writing. I knew there would be throngs of people who had drunk the spiked AG Kool Aid, that I would have the opportunity to take pictures of moms and daughters toting multiple dolls. My cynicism was having a field day.
Initially, I thought I was dead on: The line to get into the store was comically long (1.5 hour wait just to get a number, after which it would be several more hours to enter Xanadu), so we bowed out and just reveled in the festivities. The entire mall was swept up in the frenzy. Hundreds of shoppers watched a variety show AG had organized, with fresh-faced girls singing songs about the multiplication tables and other wholesome subjects. Booths invited kids to take pieces of modeling clay and make mini sculptures. Each kid was handed a bag full of goodies that would wind up in the garbage in a week.
When we got hungry, we could go to almost any restaurant and just say “American Girl” and get a discount on the bill. Burgers, pizza, cupcakes – everything was cheaper. And who can resist an easy bargain? Just being at the mall on that day meant you were part of the American Girl party. The whole thing was enough to make me pine for my Barbies.
But later, a new thought challenged my cynicism: I realized that the AG hype might be the essence of “American.” After all, this is how our economy runs. We all have to collectively convince ourselves that we need newer, better, more things, and the more we buy, the better the consumer-confidence index, and more smoothly hums the economic engine. We could all take a lesson from the AG marketing people.
They are brilliant – indeed geniuses – at selling their stuff. They have picked a message and they stick with it. Wholesome, historic, and hugely hyped. They could have hired real singers and dancers, but opted for the homegrown talent that would warm the hearts of their market share. They could have charged us to play at the craft booths, but that would be akin to charging for cigars at your baby’s birth.
The folks at AG not only dance to their own tunes, they get everyone else to join in too. To be in the “in” crowd on opening weekend, you really needed to be sporting an AG doll. What could be more effective advertising? To be a savvy shopper, you needed to go to stores where pledging your love to AG would get you a discount. Surely, nothing could be more American than propelling our consumerism. Maybe even consume more than we can afford. And the whole “Made in China” thing? Heck, at this point, even that seems American.
I’m taking notes. Look out for the grand opening blowout for my blog.
*This article was originally published in the Feb 2014 edition of India Currents, Northern California edition.