Thursday, May 1, 2008

You go, American Girl. Go, now.

American Girl store frontNothing says "female empowerment" quite like women using capitalism to cash in on female empowerment.

I have seen it up close, dear friend. It is called the American Girl doll/book/movie phenomenon.

For those without little girls or good credit lines, American Girl dolls were created by a mid-Western woman who wanted a better line of role models for girls than the bodacious airline hostess Barbie dolls of her day.

She succeeded. She succeeded so well, she sold the company in 1998 for $700 million … to Barbie's maker, Mattel. Now, the woman, Pleasant Rowland, is taking her money and essentially remaking Aurora, N.Y., in her own American Girl image, much to the displeasure of some of the natives.

Conceptually, I have no problem with AG. The dolls all have historical, fill-the-world-with-love-and-goodness backstories (Slave girl helps with the Underground Railroad! Hippie chick saves bald eagles!) supported through books, videos and a soon-to-be-released Major Motion Picture.

Values, character, etc. - I'm down with that. Beats Bratz and their "passion for fashion."

But, being in the Land of the Free Enterprise System, they tie all that wholesomeness into selling you not just the dolls at 90 bucks a pop but also the doll's accessories (Own the slave girl doll's bird in a cage for $18! Buy the hippie chick doll's picnic gear for camping out to watch bald eagles for $48!), life-size clothes for your girls that look like the dolls' clothes, and more.

And, your precious girl needs them ALL!

I'll give AG props for chutzpah and quality. The stuff they shill is definitely more substantial in terms of size and material than say those flimsy, teeny Polly Pocket toys Thing 1 was into for a while. I still occasionally find them under furniture or in the dog's digestive remains.

Well, yesterday, Thing 1 and took a day trip to Chicago for her quarterly appointment with the juvenile dermatomyositis specialist (she's doing very well, thanks for asking). As part of our appointments, we always visit the American Girl Place store there. It's her reward for enduring all the blood draws, daily doses of pills, weekly injections of medicines, nights in traction boots to stretch her ankle muscles, methods of avoiding too much sun exposure and periodic medical procedures over the past six years. They should make an American Girl doll out of her.

So, there she is, skipping up the "Magnificent Mile" of Chicago's glitzy Michigan Avenue shopping district. Arms swaying, safari hat perched on her head, a blissful blur in pink and white stripes only stopping to ask how many more blocks 'til we get there.

We arrive five minutes before the store opens. She's looking at the window displays, telling me what she likes and doesn't like.

Now, she's detailing exactly what three things she wants. She knows because she has pored through the AG catalog (which seem to arrive weekly in the mailbox), made thick colored marker circles around 85 percent of the items, and then narrowed it down to a Holy Trinity of American Girlness. This is because she knows that while I am a sucker, I am a sucker with financial limitations.

"I added it up with the calculator," she exclaims, "and they only cost $126!"

Hey, math skills being learned here. American Girl is THAT good!

It's now 10 a.m. on the dot. A man in a navy blue custodial uniform unlocks the door. "Come on in," he says.

Thing 1 is today's Customer No. 1. Some day, I'll remember to bring a camera for proud moments like this.

American Girl hair salonThe AG store in Chicago is three floors of red, pink and purple pre-teen paradise (add green if you own stock in Mattel, of course). Being a Wednesday morning, this is the first time I've been in the place without it being wall-to-wall girls dressed just like their favorite AG dolls they cradled in their arms.

There was also no snaking queue of moms waiting to pay an AG stylist $20 to give a ponytail-flip-with-braid 'do to their princesses' "Just Like You" doll. The café was silent, waiting for parent-child bonding over afternoon tea at $17 a head.

It gave me the same feeling of time-slowing, stomach-sinking regret you might experience between the moment the 46-inch LCD flatscreen slips from your fingers and the millisecond it smashes onto your tile floor.

doll on crutchesAs we wandered through the stacks of boxes filled with can't-live-without-accessories (plastic cast and crutches for playing 'my doll had an accident' was a vital item Thing 1 sought for a while), I saw a fellow Dad. He asked a saleswoman if they sold Girl Scout uniforms for the dolls.

No, she said, but the closest thing would be this doll's summer camp outfit. Then you could get the camp tent and backpack and camping accessories …

I now know exactly what that vacant, dead man's stare of helplessness looks like that I give my wife every time she tells me about the latest home improvement idea she got from watching HGTV.

So, $137.66 later (note: must teach girl about sales tax), we were on our way. But first, I needed to make a pit stop.

I stopped a male security guard walking past me on the basement level. "I see the big 'Women's Restroom' sign," I said, pointing out the obvious in front of us, "but where is the men's room?"

His eyes rolled.

"You're not going to like this," he sighed. "Two floors up, in the back, tucked around a corner from the customer service desk."

"We all complain about it," he then added. By "we," he was obviously referring to only the other male members of the store staff. You could tell.

"Well, I'm sure they are fixing that when you move to the new, bigger store across the street this fall," I said.

"Oh, no," he said. "Same location in the store. But it's a bigger store and a longer walk. We all fought for that one, but it's not happening."

I guess it's true. Payback is a bitch.
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  1. First of all, I just want to say that I didn't realize that Thing 1 (and your family) was battling such a huge challenge - I am profoundly sorry for that and admire how you seem to be handling with as much grace and humor as possible.

    Now, onto the American Girl. What. A. Racket. We have a "Julie" doll, purchased after a mother-daughter excursion to the very same Chicago branch.

    And for The Girl's birthday I took her to the dinner at the New York AG. I was struck by the merchandising and marketing genius of these folks and their ability to not-so-gently extort our hard earned educational dollars for quasi-educational amusements.

    Wish I'd thought of it first.

  2. Girl Scout wear for dolls? That scam is in the parallel universe of capitalism gone amuck called Build-A-Bear Workshop.

    Glad the check-up went well.

  3. You nailed it on the head, Betsy. I've seen them at BaB.

    The JM has been under control for about 4 years, but not in remission. Good thing is Thing 1 only has rash issues (which are minimal of late) and not muscle/joint/weakness problems. We are trying to get her off some more meds. Cross your fingers and pray to the God(s)/Goddess(es) of your choice.



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