Tales From New York: American Girls

There was a time when waiting for the mail to come was enjoyable. A time when it wasn’t all bills and mortgage offers. I don’t know how they knew to send the magazine to my house. I’m certain my parents would have stopped it if they could. I can remember checking the mail after school before Mom got home. I was so excited when it arrived. Pouring over each page in my living room. Book bag and jacket forgotten, left in the middle of the hallway floor. American Girls were the gold standard; the toy I coveted above all others.

I was never really into dolls growing up. Mom says she remembers me sitting in the family rec room with a book and precisely turning each page in imitation of my elders. I was probably three or four years old and I couldn’t read, but I desperately wanted to. I quietly reenacted what I thought it would look like if I really was reading: a miniature version of Plato’s cave shadow; the idea of reading without the reality. Growing up there was no shortage of books. I had children’s encyclopedias with information about space and how to make homemade playdough. I had books about dinosaurs, poems by Ogden Nash, and stories about a mouse on a motorcycle, goneaway lakes, and friendly bulls.

Perhaps that’s why American Girls appealed to me. Long before my parents ever conceded and sent away for my girl, I had the books about her. Back then, there were only three choices. You were either a Samantha, a Kirsten, or a Molly. Samantha was always my favorite. Even after the red-headed Felicity was added to the collection with her beautiful blue ball gown, I wanted Samantha. I’m sure part of it was the fact that we had similar hair, but I think another part of it was that there was something about her spirit that I identified with. In some ways she was living a privileged life, but she was also a bit of an emotional outcast – having been orphaned. Her best friend was poor and she had a tremendous amount of compassion and did her best to help. Her stories tied in with the idea of women’s equality and the right to vote.

During my recent trip to NYC with Kristin and Adrian, we did a lot of walking. Adrian wanted to go to a brewery and had his phone set for walking navigation. This gave us the opportunity to walk all over Manhattan from the MoMA to the brewery. Of course, being New York City, his reception was less than stellar and we did some back-tracking. We ended up walking through Rockefeller Center while an episode of 30 Rock was taping. Jane Krakowski and Judah Friedlander performed a musical number with the interns as the chorus. We walked passed Magnolia Bakery, where I was tempted to “mack on some cupcakes.”

And then we walked past the American Girl store. Correction: And then I stopped mid-stride and demanded that we go in the American Girl store. Adrian, being male, simply did not understand. Kristin, being of an age, told Adrian he could wait on the street corner by himself while she accompanied me inside.

The store was huge. If someone had taken me there when I was a child I may have had an aneurysm and died from overexcitement. They had all the dolls on display. They had all the little outfits set out to full effect. There were scenes, the dolls posed with all their accessories. There were pets. There was a doll hospital where the performed repairs. You can have tea with your doll.

The original girls are no longer available, but there are new dolls. Now you can pick out one that looks exactly like you. This was something that I was vaguely aware of as I recently read an article about a photographer, Ilona Szwarc, who has done a series of portraits of girls with their American Girl dolls. These portraits are provocative and thought provoking. The idea that children are malleable and are in the process of a metamorphosis, that they are constantly in the process of forming ideas about themselves and the world around them, and that the American Girl phenomenon is an extension of that process.

Does the girl come to identify and know herself through the doll, or does the identity exist and then the doll is chosen to reflect that identity? It’s a sort of chicken or the egg hypothesis. I think that’s the magic of American Girls. Because unlike other dolls, which seem to exist for young girls to mirror the act of mothering, American Girls exist as a mirror of one’s self. I never played mother to my American Girl. I played history. I learned about the world around me: about factory fires, children working to support their families, and the suffragettes. I learned about the wars that shaped our world and was given a marker by which to judge my experience as a girl growing up at the end of 20th century. American Girl provided me with a perspective on the privileges and limitations placed on me due to gender. A complex, although admittedly not always accurate, lesson for a seven-year-old.

And so, while my brother stood outside on the bustling streets of New York City, I took a few minutes with my sister-in-law to bask in the nostalgia of my childhood. To appreciate what I was given and to remember hours of hours of playtime with friends. Kristin and I reminisced and talked about our shared history as an American girl with an American Girl doll.

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