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Barbie Schmarbie

American Girl Dolls Make for Innocent if Expensive Play

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As a little girl, I lived vicariously through my Barbie. When
she wore her Bob Mackie halter gown, I was a disco queen.
When she rode the elevator to the top of her three-story town home,
I was a lady of leisure. And when she began making out with
ripple-chested Malibu Ken on a pile of polyester pantsuits, well, it
was time for me to pack Barbie away and focus my attention on the
cover boys of Tiger Beat magazine. Now, as the mother of boys, I
don’t get to play with dolls much. But I’ve heard that today’s
little girls covet a series of supertoys so beloved they could
knock Barbie from her plastic penthouse of popularity.

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They’re American Girl dolls. Pre-pubescent girls go wild for
the 18-inch Mattel dolls, which come packaged with quaint
storybooks offering “girl-sized” perspectives on various eras and
events in American history. There’s Minnesota pioneer Kirsten, Colonial girl Felicity, turn-of-the-century
orphan Samantha, and others.

ag%20felicity.JPG Squat and squishable, American Girls
are downright wholesome compared to Mattel’s Barbie, basically a
three-dimensional mudflap girl with flirty pink pumps and a
bitchin’ convertible. But that hasn’t slowed sales. Since their
creation in 1986, more than 12 million American Girl dolls have
been sold — and at exorbitant prices. The dolls cost $87, plus more
than $20 for a housecoat, riding habit, or pinafore and snood. Add
another $62 if you want Samantha’s Victorian lemonade set or
Felicity’s Windsor writing chair.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” says a 22-year-old babysitter whose
female charges are obsessed with the dolls. “They want to swim with
them, they want to watch television with them. They want to look
like them.”

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The brand has a line called Just Like You which allows girls to purchase
doppelganger dolls with 25 different hair/eye/skin color
combinations. Girls can also — and here’s where I start to get
nauseous — wear clothing identical to that of their dolls. One
Goleta teacher had a student who brought her “twin” American Girl
doll to school five days in a row, and each day the pair had new,
matching outfits. “I couldn’t look at the doll all week,” she said,
“without expecting it to take on some Chuckie-like behavior.”
Indeed, there’s something creepy about these moppets. I’m troubled
that they were created by a woman named Pleasant, and that each character hails from a year
ending in 4: 1764, 1824, 1934.

What’s weirder — what’s arguably cult-like about the whole
phenomenon — are the palatial retail stores that serve as meccas
for the dolls’ most fervent admirers. Located in New York, Chicago,
and Los Angeles (at the swanky Grove mall), American Girl Place has a cafe where dolls are seated
in “treat seat” high chairs and served tea in china cups. Personal
shoppers help girls choose flame-retardant paisley pajamas to match
those of their dolls, then escort the toys to the doll hair salon,
where stylists give them updos and facials. A photo studio captures
doll-and-human portraits.

ag%20place.jpg I spoke with several Santa Barbara moms
who’ve made pilgrimages to the L.A. store with their delirious
daughters in tow. A friend of mine, who is otherwise quite sane,
confessed she and her 8-year-old spent five freaking hours in the
place nibbling something called “bitty bites,” watching a live
musical show, and, yes, having her doll’s hair braided — a
privilege for which there is often a long wait. “My daughter even
had the traumatic experience of leaving her doll at the ‘hospital’
there, for a lazy eye condition,” she says. “The doll arrived in
the mail all fixed with an entirely new head attached. A bit
gruesome, actually.” American Girl doesn’t shy away from unpleasant
realities; some of the books address surprisingly adult topics. One
doll/character is a fugitive slave. Another works in a factory. Another has a best friend
who dies from cholera. But if girls are going to live vicariously
through their dolls, moms would rather their daughters relate to
adversity-laden freckle-faces than to Barbie. “It’s healthier than
playing with a pint-sized Playboy centerfold doll,” says a friend
of mine, the mother of two girls. Another praises American Girl for
encouraging reading and sparking an interest in history. “It helps
keep girls young and wholesome,” she says, “and teaches them good
life lessons.”

That may be true, at least until Mattel execs decide to
introduce an American Boy to the line. A strapping young law
student named Peter, perhaps — a bright-eyed conscientious objector
to the Vietnam War. In any case, mothers of young girls should be
prepared for the inevitable day when they find Felicity in a
compromising position on a pile of pinafore dresses. Because
pioneer tales and tea parties can only hold an American girl’s
interest for so long; sooner or later, their innocence is history.
For more, visit StarshineRoshell.com.

4.1.1. Sixty girls will dress in historical and contemporary
outfits for American Girl Fashion Shows at 1 and 4 p.m. this
Saturday, November 18, and Sunday, November 19, at the Santa
Barbara’s Rockwood Woman’s Club to benefit the Junior League of
Santa Barbara. Tickets are $28 through www.jlsantabarbara.org.

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