Word Association: “American Girl.”
Tom Petty song. The scene in Silence of the Lambs when the poor girl is alone in her car singing just before she meets up with Creepy-Guy-Who-Skins-People.
Steering away from serial killer. Taking it back to Petty: William and Mary, College Deli jukebox, $3 pitchers. Cool guitar riff in “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Spontaneous road trip from Williamsburg to Norfolk to see Tom Petty in concert: Kim may have had a paper due the next day; Megan may have strong-armed a sorority pledge into driving us; I may not have initiated any trouble on this particular trip.
What I would not have associated with the phrase “American Girl” until this month are the following: pink cellophane hearts, reams of colorful fleece, elastic and beads, glitter-glue, acrylic paint on rocks, and dolls. Meet Mollie, Kit, and Julie. Meet Addy and Felicity. The list goes on but I could only cover five dolls—one per day—when I taught two back-to-back weeks of American Girls and their Dolls camp this summer. (Oh, yes I did.) Classes were packed like a Rocks for Jocks lecture hall: 19 girls the first week and 16 the second. Honestly, I did not know I had it in me.
There is a part of me that likes to claim I am not a doll person. When I revise history, I glorify time spent on my childhood tire swing, on bike trips to the Village Market to buy Tasty cakes and Spree candies, on my explorations in and around Eastern College’s duck pond, or my hours logged playing catcher for my brothers’ wiffle ball games.
But I did have a rag-tag collection of dolls and stuffed animals; they populated my bedroom like Gabe Kaplan’s students filled his classroom in Welcome Back, Kotter. I didn’t really soak in the spirit of The House of the Seven Gables as a 10-year old during our family trip to Salem, Massachusetts, but I did bring home a doll. I was on the brink of devastation one Christmas when I did NOT see the Sunshine Family and their camper under the tree, but they were there, wrapped in the last box I opened. My dad and his friend Father Jackson went to a conference in Memphis one summer weekend, and they both brought me home a “Memph”: one a brown ball of yarn with googly eyes, another, a green troll holding a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” sign. During one phase, I would save my pennies, then wander through the Paisley Shoppe looking for the tiny-stuffed mouse that most appealed—I had dozens of them, all housed in decorated shoe-boxes. It’s a wonder I had the time to watch as many Speed Racer episodes as I did.
So I had the doll-background in place to teach camp this month. What I did not have was any previous knowledge of the American Girl industry. I’d heard about the dolls and am a quick-learn when it comes to age-9 appropriate reading. I liked the books I read. But this, I discovered, this was an institution. This was so much more than a book and a doll.
An American Girl doll and her correlating paperback will cost you $105. A trip to the NYC store for dinner with your doll? $26 per person, two seating times per evening, reservations recommended. A Pampering Plus Package at the Doll Hair Salon? Over $30. There are movies, Bitty Babies, Doll Hospitals, doll storage, and oh, the accessories: a baby grand ($150), Julie’s banana seat bike ($100 and is back-ordered until August 31, 2012), Mollie’s lunchbox ($28…I bought my daughter’s lunch bag last summer at Target for $9.99 and she’s using it again this year.).
I could go on. People obviously do because of the absurd expense, because of the over-the-top branding, because the founder Pleasant T. Rowland writes that her company gives “young girls a sense of self and an understanding of where they came from and who they are today,” but in my camp experience, girls didn’t seem to know as much about the stories, about the times in history the stories are meant to teach them. There are reasons for cynicism—of 35 participating campers, there were two girls of color.
Now to set cynicism aside and tell you what I saw: each girl brought her own doll. Some had several; many had only one. All the girls carried their dolls carefully, dressed them impeccably, and loved them deeply. We had a stash of donated items for the girls to play with including a flute set, a Victorian Holiday Sleigh, a Palomino horse, ten dolls, and at least 50 outfits. Really nice parents dropped off really excited campers each day, and my two counselors and I didn’t even need to be in the room–the girls and their dolls would have played independently for hours. We did provide them with art projects: we made friendship bracelets, heart-shaped glasses, sleeping bags, pet rocks, rugs. We played games appropriate to particular time periods: Miss Mary Mack, Cat’s Cradle, I’ve Got a Basket, Pass the Ring. And at the end of each day, we read from the stories….girls sat in a circle with their dolls and listened.
There’s a lot that could change for American children, girls especially. But all that I hear about the state of the state—hours children spend locked indoors in front of screens; early puberty; Kindergarten entrance exams; deteriorating Middle Class; abolished arts’ programs; falling test scores; dismal economy– doesn’t take away from the fact that girls still play with dolls. That was my ultimate take-away. The girls at camp were polite, kind, and lovely. There’s reason for hope.
Lexi had a beach-themed pool party for her 5th birthday this week, and right before we handed out the variety of cupcakes offered, Lexi’s friend Eliza chanted a little mantra to herself: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” She got the basic ocean wave cupcake, and she walked away smiling.
Perhaps, despite all of the distractions, there are still nice kids creatively playing in America.
Of course my own girls do not turn down a television show when it’s offered. Caroline tears up when she watches, not because she’s emotionally overwhelmed but because she doesn’t blink. We’ve managed to amble through this summer together without a ton of t.v. noise. My house is in shambles because of obsessive fort-building. I found my blog-notes rolled up as faux-kindling for a campout. My girls do not have American Girl dolls—(their interests are piqued, I’m afraid, but for now…) they’re happy with Tink, Pink Doggie, Blue Bear, Puffin, and the rest of their own rag-tag collections.
Earlier today they were using a discarded piece of fleece from American Girl camp as a rope. Caroline stood on the staircase tossing it to Lexi, who was flailing around on the floor. Caroline yelled, “Grab it! (pronounced g-d-aab, possible attempt at a rolled “r”?) and Lexi yelled back, “I can’t! (“can’t” rhymed with “want,” possible attempt at a British accent?).
Yesterday they spent a good couple of hours on our porch, watching four bright green caterpillars devour my potted dill.
Caroline just handed me a walkie-talkie and walked out of the room. A light flashes and the walkie-talkie hisses and clicks into life. I hear her little voice: “Care-Bear to Momma-Sue. Puffin is trapped under my bed. Can you help me? Over.”
“Momma-Sue to Care-Bear. On my way. Over and out.”