Tuesday, April 25, 2006

American Girl Place Gives Me The Creeps


So we were down in LA at the grandparents' yesterday, and we went for my mom's customary morning coffee at the old Farmer's Market at 3rd and Fairfax before heading back to Bakersfield. My mom had been talking about how the new American Girl Place store had opened up last week in the humungous space previously occupied by F.A.O. Schwartz in the Grove, the outdoor mall/faux streetscape next to the Farmer's Market. Apparently, lines had been out the door for days and management moved employee parking to a building miles away (connected by shuttle) to open up the employee parking floor for the anticipated hordes of chaufferred doll aficionados coming for their "Afternoon Tea" with their dolls. Well, the store opens at 9:30 in the morning, before most other mall stores (guess it's never too early to buy matching pajamas so you can dress like your doll), so we strolled over to check it out after coffee.

I thought the F.A.O. Schwartz that was in the space before was creepy, what with the animatronics and the non-stop music. But this takes it to a whole other level. First of all, let me say that I'm not the most receptive audience for this. The whole girl-empowerment thing is great, but combining it with crass mass commercialism ["Buy matching clothes for you and your doll! And don't forget the accessories!"], not so much—and then add in my favorite problematizers, race and class, and, well.... Let's just say that The Pumpkin won't be taking her doppleganger doll to high tea there any time soon.

Everything is some shade of pink. All the saleswomen, smiling and quick with a greeting, seem creepily...doll-like. And everything, every object, every experience, is for sale. A giant display of dolls "Just Like You" advertises your little girl's ability to find a doll-ppleganger with the appropriate combination of hair color, hair texture (no naturals for you African American girls, though, only pressed or curls, sorry!), eye color, skin color, nose shape (couldn't tell if there were different eye shapes, but noses seemed limited to "regular" and "a little flatter")... Teeth, however, seem to be universally buck-. And don't forget the accessories, and the real-girl-sized clothes to match! And right next to that display is the...wait for it...hair salon. Yes, hair salon, where a row of miniaturized salon chairs sits on a counter, behind which stand the "stylists" waiting for their inanimate clients. Upstairs, you've got a cafe where you can eat three meals a day, book a birthday party, you can watch something (don't know if it's video or live, wasn't paying attention) in the theater, get your photo taken with your doll, buy a baby doll (and accessories! two-pack twins and a matching two-seater stroller!), buy doll-specific books, and check out/buy from the company's vaunted Historical Collection.

This 10-doll collection of characters from American historical periods from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, complete with novels, has been lauded for its sort of "girl power" version of fictionalized social history. In the last few years, they've added an African American (runaway slave), a Latina (New Mexican), and Native American (eighteenth century Plains)to the collection. Just out of curiosity, I checked the on-line store to see what matching clothes you could get to dress like your historical dolls—"Dress like a run-away slave!"—but, alas, it's mostly nightgowns. Except there's nothing for Nez Perce warrior girl Kaya—and I was so looking forward to buying The Pumpkin some faux buckskin jammies.

Angry Asian Man wrote last month about this Sacramento Bee article about Asian American girls and their parents who have started a campaign to get American Girl to add an Asian American character and story to the historical line. While I always applaud young activists and work on the issue of pop-cultural representation and diversity, I gotta say, I don't know what I'd think about, say, a 1940s-era Emi doll complete with a family i.d. number tag around her neck and a matching suitcase in which to put only what she could carry. Heh. Already I'm sorta uncomfortable with the "diversity" of the historical collection—I know they have to start somewhere, but in a collection of 10 dolls, in which the white dolls range from servant to elite and from colonial times to WWII, the non-white dolls are one black doll who's a runaway slave, one Native American doll who wants to be a warrior woman, and one Latina doll who's on a New Mexican ranch. It just seems a little too pat, a little too easy. And of course, I'm viewing this with the back-drop of last year's uproar over one of their contemporary dolls, Marisol, who, after the historical Josefina, was the company's second Latina doll. The Mexican-American character's backstory included her family's moving from Chicago's historically Latino Pilsen neighborhood to the suburbs because the old barrio was too dangerous and had no place for her to play. That, obvioulsy, didn't sit too well with proud residents of the ethnic enclave.

This year's "Girl of the Year" doll/character happens to be Jess, a biracial white/Asian 10-year-old, whose accompanying story/novel focuses on her family's vacaction in Central America. I have no idea if her racial/ethnic background comes into play in her story at all. But, surrounded by a whole lot of Jess dolls and Jess books at the store, I have to say... Sorry, American Girl, she may have a bridgeless nose, but she looks like a white girl with buckteeth. (As I mentioned earlier, apparently all the dolls have the same teeth.) It's interesting to note that the hapa girl in the article linked above, who wants an AsAm historical doll (and even plans to study history in college because of American Girl), said of Jess, "She looks almost Native American or Hispanic." When told she was AsAm, she said, "That's crazy." Um, sweetie, I know we all look different, but have you really not been asked if you speak Spanish yet? Or, with that interest in history, haven't you read about the settlement of the Americas by people from, um, Asia? But either way, that doll doesn't look hapa to me, though the illustrations for the book do.

At any rate, I'm not buying The Pumpkin an American Girl doll any time soon, regardless of how racially ambiguous I could make it look. [At a year-and-a-half, my babygirl's years too young anyway—and barely taller than the dolls. She was uninterested in the baby dolls aimed at toddlers and younger girls, only wanting to push the doll-sized stroller out of the showroom, sans doll.] And that store gives me the creeps. Too many clothing items that eight-year-olds (their target audience) should not be wearing—the Jess collection has her signature halter top, and I swear I saw something on the rack that looked like a tube top and hot pants or something. Nuh-uh. (Don't we have enought problems with the Pussycat Dolls joining the Bratz on the toystore shelves?) And the resemblance of the employees to their smiling, cheerful products, at 9:30 on a Monday morning, yeah, no thanks. No tea-with-your-doll for me.

Not that they're losing business from me. Apparently, the afternoon tea service is booked for months.

13 comments:

OTRgirl said...

You paint a vivid (and scary) picture! And the doll? Definitely more white than Asian in appearance.

sume said...

My daughter begged me for one of those dolls specifically asking for one that "looks like her". They use to send those huge catalogues at least once a month. I had no idea about the stepford doll activities. Now I'm really glad I never relented. No telling where it would have lead.

Violet said...

Doesn't this store put the feminist movement back a few decades? It sounds awful. Americans have too much money in their wallets...

Stefania Pomponi Butler aka CityMama said...

trying desperately to find an email address on your blog...can you email me? citymama @ gmail

aimy said...

I'm 18 now, but when I was in the age of American Girl obsession my Asian parents were not about to shell out $82 for a doll. They finally caved in for my 10th birthday and bought the almond-eyed one, but I was too old for that stuff by then so "Melody" ended up being my dummy for making doll clothes.
Anyway, my biggest problem with those dolls was not the the buck teeth. It was the eyes. They were abnormally round, and if it was an ethnic doll the eyebrows were unkempt. I'd still love to see a Japanese internment-camp doll though.

Christie D. said...

It does look bad... I was looking at the pics on the AGP page you linked to, and was thinking, "Gee, most or all of these girls look white... are there no black girls?", when I noticed, on the top picture, there is one black girl - hidden behind the two blonde girls. I actually hadn't noticed her at first. It's such a sad picture. The two blonde girls look excitedly up at the 2 prettily dressed white dolls on the display stand... the dolls are dressed in clothes that might have been worn in slavery days. The black girl is hidden behind, looking downward and clutching her own little doll. There is no black doll on the stand. The old-fashioned dresses of the white dolls led me to wonder, "What is she supposed to be thinking? Where is the little slave doll?" Then I read that they actually do have a slave doll! and it is the only black doll in the historical series?? What a crazy company this is! Who set up that photo, with that poor girl hidden in the back, with no pretty display doll to look at? Stay away from them!!

enygma said...

I think the hapa girl referenced in the article is being critical of the hapa "Jess" doll.

nina said...

I, like aimy, begged and begged for the Samantha doll (I'm a teeny bit older, so they only had 4-5 historical dolls then, no customizable stuff). I was a little old too by the time they caved in (it's an expensive doll!), but I still have her and plan on passing her (and her rather extensive wardrobe, courtesy of grandma) to any future daughters. Her head's sort of falling off though (courtesy of my younger brother) so I need to take her to the doll hospital (yes, they have one).

I guess I'm not wierded out by it all because they were part of my childhood.

sasha said...

As a historian, it kills me that I didn't come up with the idea for these dolls. I'd be a millionaire.

As a soon to be parent, yeah, they're creepy.

daddy in a strange land said...

Check out this column from the LA Times ;)

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-stein09may09,1,4434906.column

Lady Rose said...

We just spent the day their yesterday (I posted about the trip on my blog). I really like the Ameircan Girl stories and dolls - they are so much more then just dolls and toys. Each one teaches heart felt life lessons. So when faced with a real life situation girl's can ask themselves "What would Molly, Felicity, Samantha, or Kirsten do right now?" Most likely, they would put on their game faces and carry on with the utmost grace and dignity. They teach about bravery, friendship, handling conflict and adversity. They are also filled with historical facts that come alive and capture the imagination. Sure its sugar coated (it is for kids after all) -- but it also touches on real issues and real life difficulties in a way that speaks to a young girl's heart that can inspire and offer hope.

My daughter and her best friend share lots and lots of happy times together with their best friend dolls (Elizabeth and Felicity). My daughter is now 10. We became an adoptive family when she was 5 and 1/2 months old, she is from southern China.

Until I really looked into what American Girl had to offer I felt like it was kinda creep and way to much money for a doll -- but then I read the stories and I watched my daughter's face light up when she got her doll and we have lots of fun together too. It is for her, not me, and worth every penny.

elissa said...

oh my goodness, i always wanted an american girl doll - finally got a bitty baby (asian) doll when i was about 10, which was almost too old. (i really feel like that was too old now that my 6 1/2 year old sisters and their friends are telling me that they're outgrowing bitty baby.. gosh)

DEFINITELY a pet peeve of mine is that AG has like ONE asian doll in their whole collection of the girl of today dolls. i was just looking thru a catalog the other day and was disgusted that there is still the same ol' same ol' asian doll - who, i will wholeheartedly agree, does not look all that asian..

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for a Chinese American Girl character somewhere in 1800 or 1900s San Francisco, California who's skilled in martial arts with both traditional Chinese and American costumes but the character wound up being in the 1970s and a secondary character instead. Awful portrayal of Asian Americans.