On the day we celebrated my daughter Catieâ€™s first birthday, my good friend Robert Simonson came out to the suburbs for the party and marveled at the mountain of toys piled up on the living room rug. â€œWhy does she need all these toys?â€ he asked, half rhetorically. â€œYou know, the Shakers gave each child one doll made out of cloth, and those kids used their imaginations and made out just fine.â€
In my continuing consumerist sprint to reject Robertâ€™s admonition, last month I took Catie (now 6) to see an opening-weekend screening of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. And what a glorious day it was! Having already dressed ourselves up and taken ourselves to a matinee of Wicked at Hollywoodâ€™s legendary Pantages Theatre, Catie and I booked across town to the Grove for the perfect nightcap to our daddy-girl culture-fest. After a leisurely and purchase-filled roam around American Girl Place, the colossal retail center of the AG empire, we crossed the street and settled into a pair of newfangled multiplex stadium-seats to take in the doll franchiseâ€™s first big-screen adventure.
Yes, it was a special time â€“ made even more special because Felicity and Julie came along. Felicity is a proper, well-bred lass from the 1770s who believes fervently in animal rights but isnâ€™t so sure about revolution â€“ at least not until her fatherâ€™s brash apprentice convinces her that even young ladies have a role to play in securing their rights. Julie, on the other hand, is a hippie chick from the 1970s who is mighty concerned about conservation (she saves eagles!) and the nascent womenâ€™s lib movement (she plays basketball on the boysâ€™ team!).
Felicity and Julie are, of course, inanimate objects. Yet I know all of these biographical details about them because weâ€™ve read the tie-in books that play such a large role in the American Girlsâ€™ runaway popularity. Up on the screen that night was the filmic story of yet another archetype, the depression-era heroine Kit â€“ scion of the only FDR lovers in conservative Cincinnati, friend and defender of hobos, crusader for social justice in the face of police profiling. The message of Kit Kittredge is one of tolerance, of forgiveness, of judging not lest ye be judgedâ€¦and, of course, of Girl Power!
In other words, Phyllis Schlaflyâ€™s worst nightmare.
Created in the mid-â€™80s as a mail-order business by teacher/author Pleasant Rowland, and manufactured by Mattel since 1998, the American Girl collection is spearheaded by Felicity, Kit, Julie, and six other dolls (each, by now, the subject of several books) representing different periods of American history. Their â€œstoriesâ€ offer a pre-teen childâ€™s perspective on the major issues and events of their times; among others, thereâ€™s a doll with Mexican heritage, an African-American doll who is a fugitive slave in 1864, and a Native American doll of the Nez Perce tribe who (thankfully) lived long before palefaces ever came to her village.
Even the white Girls have had to deal with a lot of shit: child labor, abusive relatives, class warfare, womenâ€™s suffrage. Of course, the Girls always come through their struggles with flying colors and a newfound sense of empowerment. Thatâ€™s always been the point of these stories: to impose contemporary, pro-female (if not outright feminist) values on characters from the past, and to encourage todayâ€™s tweens to feel they are part of a continuum of American girls who are wholesome, yes, but also smart, strong, and forward-looking.
The cumulative American Girl version of U.S. history is, in fact, unmistakeably liberal â€“ though it was for other reasons that the AG franchise came under criticism from the far-right wing in 2005. During the holiday season that year, the AG stores and catalogs began selling rubber bracelets inscribed with the message “I Can,” in a fundraising partnership with an organization called Girls, Inc. that encourages the building of self-esteem among distaff young-uns. Outrageously, however, Girls, Inc. also supports abortion rights and accessible contraception, opposes abstinence-only sex education, and offers support to girls who happen to be lesbian or bisexual. Well, the American Family Association, Operation Rescue, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women of America, the Southern Baptist Conference, and other groups weren’t about to put up with that, so they called for a boycott and threatened pro-life pickets outside the Chicago store. (In response, newly elected Sen. Barack Obama said, “This is a classic example of overreaction and a lack of proportion.” Great news, Malia and Sasha: Free dolls for life!) The boycott achieved its usual effect…none…and all parties eventually moved on to other battles.
Anyway, all this progressiveness would seem, on the surface at least, to contradict the popular image of the Girls as a commercial steamroller. While the AG books can be procured inexpensively in any bookstore, the dolls themselves go for $90 a pop. The American Girl Place stores are wonderlands of cash-sucking extravagance â€“ theme parks where the rides have been removed, leaving only the gift shops. A lucky girl can sit down to a formal tea with her dolls (and with her friends and their dolls); she can buy outfits, including dolly-and-me matched sets, as well as accessories ranging from furniture to pets; she can get a broken arm or chipped nose repaired at the Doll Hospital; she can even send Felicity or Julie to the Doll Hair Salon for a new â€™do, or at least for an untangling, and then get a keepsake of the experience at the Photo Studio.
All in all, it sounds like an experience tailor-made for the daughters of conservative robber barons, like the Cheneys (Dick created a ruckus when he walked into the Chicago store a couple years back). But wait! There are only three full-fledged American Girl Place stores: in the Windy City along the Magnificent Mile, in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue, and in L.A. down the street from Bill Maherâ€™s studio. The moms and dads sliding their credit cards through the magnetic doohickeys in those stores, and making reservations months in advance for birthday tea parties that can cost upwards of 10 grand, are the East Coast, West Coast and Gold Coast latte liberals that Rush, Bill-o and Ann Coulter keep warning us about!
And itâ€™s the kids of those same moms and dads â€“ the ones who can afford politically correct $90 dolls and the overpriced clothes, furniture and toy ponies that go with them â€“ for whom the American Girlsâ€™ stories are written, and to whom Kit Kittredge is targeted. Mattel is indoctrinating a new generation of feminazis, and folks like me (and, particularly, my wife) are willing to pay through the nose to make sure our daughters get all the propaganda they can beg for. “C’mon, Jon, it’s not like we can’t afford it,” my wife said when I initially opposed introducing Catie to the Girls (skinflint that I am).
I used to find the phrase â€œliberal elitesâ€ absurd: How can a person, no matter how large or small his personal fortune, be considered an â€œelitistâ€ if he favors government policies that predominantly benefit the neediest members of our society, even if those policies require higher taxes for himself? Well, sitting there watching Kit Kittredge, I finally put it all together. If I can advocate the redistribution of wealth away from my own family, while still ponying up for three (so far) glassy-eyed, $90 corporate dolls whose hairdos cost more to maintain than my own, then gosh-darnit, I guess Iâ€™m a liberal elitist.
I suppose thatâ€™s not such a bad thing, as long as my daughterâ€™s values end up reflecting those expressed in the stories behind those corporate dolls. As for my friend Robert, when his son celebrated his first birthday I went online and ordered him up â€¦ a plain, cloth Shaker doll. Even that costs about 40 bucks these days, when you factor in the shipping. I hope the kidâ€™s got a good imagination.