While visiting family in Brooklyn, I took a trip to Manhattan to show my 2 year old Rockefeller Center at Christmas. We all had a blast, especially the little one who warmed up to the crowds and had fun watching the ice skating, toy soldiers, and especially the snow-people display at Sax.
Being the curious people we are, my wife, my father-in-law, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore the American Girl Place, which was across the street from Sax. Simply put, it was hell. Now, I can certainly imagine worse places that might exist – a Barbie store highlighting the “Math Is Hard” era would definitely qualify.
But a four floor department store hawking expensive dolls with matching clothing (for kid and doll!), advice books, makeup, and accessories is pretty bad. Add in the story line of empowerment of young girls (“American Girl celebrates a girl’s inner star – the little whisper inside that encourages her to stand tall, reach high, and dream big [and to] grow up to be the women who make a difference tomorrow.”), the store is even worse. When empowerment means rampant consumerism, there’s much to be questioned. But consumerism is endemic to almost any social movement in this country, so alone it’s not enough to constitute what I’m calling hell.
What made the store hell was the combination of consumerism and race. How did race enter the equation? Almost all of the families shopping were white, while almost all of the people employed by the store were black. The racial divide was most trenchant at the service portions of the store — at the Doll Cafe (where tea is served for the girls and their dolls) and the Doll Hospital (for dolls needing repairs). But the worst scene was the long line of white girls between the ages of 6 and 12 waiting for the eight adult black women at the American Girl Hair Salon. Once the girls got to the front of the line, they had the pleasure of having adult African-American women style and cut their dolls’ hair (yes, their dolls‘ hair, not their own hair). The store teaches, through the obvious racial lines throughout, that adult African-Americans are there to pamper young white girls’ dolls. That, to me, is hell.
There’s certainly immense value in teaching young girls, through the variety of dolls available (for a hefty price!), about diversity, both ethnic- and gender-based, and in encouraging young girls to choose their own path in life. And American Girls does that to some extent. And the company has, in the past, stood up to right-wing anti-choice groups.
But, there’s no value in empowerment through belittling racist consumerism.
- David S. Cohen