FLASHBACK to August 1978. It is my sixth birthday party. Someone has given me a Barbie doll. I hate dolls, I say. They’re stupid, and they don’t do anything. I toss it in the back of my closet and forget about it.
FLASHBACK to 1988. Junior year of high school. My friend Andrew wears combat boots with the disembodied, disfigured head of a Barbie doll tied to one of his shoelaces. I think that this is the coolest thing ever, and dig up the old Barbie from the back of my closet. I give her an asymmetrical, Duran Duran haircut, rip her head off, and tie it to the rearview mirror of my car.
FLASHBACK to 1993. Senior year of college. I’m taking a seminar entitled, “American Culture in the 1960s.” I write my final paper on the ways in which Barbie has permanently damaged the American female psyche.
FLASHBACK to 2004. Michael and I are in Chicago for a wedding. Harper, two years old, has been left home, and I’m feeling guilty about it. Suddenly, a red storefront looms in front of me. American Girl, it says in bold, white letters. What’s that? I ask Michael. He shrugs. Excited at the prospect of having found something new, we enter. Almost immediately, I am regretting it. There are little girls everywhere, clutching dolls that look exactly like them, that are dressed exactly like them. I stare at them as I ride the escalator to the third floor, wondering what kind of freakish cult we’ve stumbled upon. After seeing the doll hair salon, I run for my life. Barbie suddenly seems quaint. I will never let Harper have one of those things, I tell Michael. NEVER.
FLASHBACK to one year ago. An invitation arrives in the mail. It is for a birthday party at the new American Girl store that has opened in Los Angeles. It is addressed to Harper Green and her American Girl doll. I immediately throw it in the trashcan and e-mail my regrets to the mother. I am extremely pleased with myself for having dodged that bullet.
FLASHBACK to two months ago. Harper comes home from kindergarten and informs me that all of her new friends have something called American Girl dolls that look like them. She wants one. I tell her maybe for Hanukkah and pray that she will forget about it.
FLASHBACK to two weeks ago. I ask Harper what she wants for Hanukkah. She hasn’t forgotten about it.
FLASHBACK to last Wednesday. It is ten o’clock in the morning. The red storefront looms in front of me. Feeling sick to my stomach, I enter. I notice a little girl in a black velvet dress. She has blue eyes and long blonde hair that has been coaxed into perfect curls at the end. The doll she is holding is wearing the same dress, and it also has blue eyes and the same long, perfect curls. I try not to vomit. I stare at a wall of Just Like You Dolls, feeling helpless, and a saleswoman approaches and cheerfully asks if I’d like some help. I let out a big sigh. My daughter wants one of those things, I tell her, not at all trying to hide my disdain. But she is either used to cynical, doll-hating people like me, or she is entirely oblivious to the fact that there are cynical, doll-hating people like me. Either way, she is totally unfazed by my lack of enthusiasm. She asks me to describe what my daughter looks like. Long, dirty blonde hair, fair-skin, hazel eyes. Freckles? She asks. No. Bangs? No. She smiles broadly and pulls out a box. Inside of it is a doll that looks just like Harper, if Harper were plastic and addicted to valium.
I’m going to need one of those matchy outfits for her and the doll, I tell the saleswoman. She shows me a red velvet dress with a matching Santa hat. We’re Jewish, I say, trying to knock a few of those happy pills out of her. But she doesn’t even blink as she re-directs me to a gold, tafetta ballgown. I tell her that the Bat Mitzvah won’t be for seven more years. How about pajamas? she suggests, without missing a beat. I agree that this is an excellent idea. That way there’s less of a chance that Harper will actually be seen in public in an outfit that matches her doll’s. The saleswoman’s head cocks just the slightest bit, and I smile to myself. I knew I could break her. But she recovers fast, and tries to up sell me a dog named Coconut, who also has different outfits, all of which are sold separately.
On my way out, I notice the café, where you can eat lunch with your doll, and the photo center, where you can have your picture taken with your doll. And there’s that hair salon again. I feel the contents of my stomach rising. And suddenly, I have an idea.
FAST FORWARD, one month from now. I am driving in my car, and Harper and her doll are in the backseat, dressed in matching ballgowns that she persuaded my mother-in-law to buy for her. Mommy, Harper says, I don’t like what you did with your doll’s hair. I glance at the rearview mirror, from which is hanging the head of a doll that looks just like me. It’s called a Mohawk, honey, I tell her. Well, Harper replies, I still don’t understand why you cut off her head. I love, you, Harp, I tell her. And I’m glad you like your doll. But mommy will not go down without a fight. Harper looks at me blankly. I still don’t understand, she says. I know you don’t, I say. But someday, I hope you will.
Hear what Viewed and Reviewed Columnist Jo Keroes has to say about American Girls: "American Girl Books: Better than Nothing. "