Monday, July 28, 2008

American Girls

Kate, Heidi, and I made our first trip to the American Girl Doll Store in Chicago two years ago, when Heidi was not quite six. We arrived just after it opened, at nine a.m. It is a vast place, just off Michigan Avenue, near the Water Tower: three stories of dolls and doll accessories! Each of the “official” dolls is named, and has its own story: including that year’s new doll, Jess, who is home-schooled. (Please don’t let her choose that one, I thought.)

The store is a materialist’s delight, packed upscale mothers and daughters. You can buy, it seems…anything. Dozens of outfits (with accessories), starting around $22, going to $50—some are offered in little girl sizes, too. Beds, tents, hammocks, kayaks, strollers, pets, horses, storybooks, jewelry kits, hair care kits. You can have your doll’s hair styled in the styling salon, where grown women style the hair of dolls in a line of made-to-scale beauty shop chairs set on the counter. You can have lunch in the café (we did, @ $20 a pop), where there are special doll seats that hook onto the table and each doll’s place is set with a little black and white striped cup and saucer.

Heidi was overwhelmed. After going through the whole store three times, we looked through the catalogue, Heidi circling the “official” dolls she liked, to try to narrow down the options—and got down to Molly and Elizabeth. We sat on a sofa in the doll showroom, and I got the models from the shelf so that she could hold them, examine their outfits. Molly had a locket that opened, like hers, and a cool red purse. Elizabeth had a pretty princess-like dress. But neither was quite right.

Heidi curled up on the sofa in the fetal position. “I’m sad,” she said. Moaned, actually.

Earlier, we’d looked at and rejected the selections of “do-it-yourself” dolls that are for girls who want dolls that look more like themselves, and/or want to make up their own names and stories. Those have a variety of hair color, length, style; skin tone, and eye color. Now we reconsidered them. There were pictures in the catalogue. One had highlights in her brown hair, kind of like Heidi—and blue eyes. She liked the sound of that. So we went back to the display: all the dolls seated in rows, as if waiting for a class photo, maybe 25 different options. The dolls are all dressed the same (in embroidered jeans, tee-shirt, hoodie, athletic shoes), each with its number on its lap.

There was a bunch of middle school girls standing there, and when we identified the one Heidi thought she might like, one girl said, “That is such a good choice. Her hair stays really nice. I’ve had mine for a whole year, and it’s just the same.” The approval of a middle school girl—what could be better than that?

(Though the girl then said, “Can I give you a little advice? Don’t brush the hair!” Heidi looked stricken. Kate said, “Thanks, but we just couldn’t not brush her hair!”)

In any case, Heidi decided instantly that this was the doll she wanted, and a visible weight lifted from her little being. “Are you sure?” Kate asked. She nodded. So we went right to the counter and I bought it—the special deal that included her pet dog! Kate said she’d buy one outfit, so we set out to look for that. Heidi lobbied for glasses, which we added. She was so good that (without her asking) I ended up buying her the bathing suit combo, since it was summer and she’d surely be taking the doll to the pool with her.

All the way home, she dressed and undressed the doll, named Mylie, marveled over the little accessories (an anklet, a bracelet, a tiny tiara, striped socks, underwear, sandals). She talked to it, brushed its hair, made pigtails, then a ponytail. “Did I make a good decision?” she asked, several times—and we assured her that she had.

We made our second trip the store last week. Heidi had saved money for a new doll—a friend for the first. Now nearly eight, Heidi was considerably more efficient in making her decision about what doll she wanted. The hard part was clothes and accessories. She could choose three things, and we circled the section again and again. Cozy star robe & spa slippers, flower girl outfit, sparkly tunic and jeans, nautical skirt set, gardening outfit, birthday dress, rain slicker & boots, mermaid costume, silk pajamas. Skateboard outfit—including skateboard--who, in the end,could resist that? Which led, naturally, to an agonizing consideration of the injury accessory kit (crutches, Velcro-on casts, etc) and the wheelchair. Small things get lost, I reminded her. And how, exactly would you play with the crutches?

The wheelchair it was.

She was thrilled with it, concocting various narratives about how the new doll, Carly, might end up in it. Someone stopped at our table in the Barnes & Noble café, where we were having a treat, and said how sweet it was that she was “aware” of children who were handicapped. But, while Heidi is a kind-hearted child, I knew it wasn’t about that at all.

It was all about the story--which, of course, I loved.

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