Buying Girls from Behind Glass


While in Los Angeles last month, Tawn and I slipped up to The Grove, a shopping and entertainment center near the Farmers’ Market located at Third and Fairfax Streets near CBS Studios.  While there, we met with a pair of Xangans who were down in LA for the weekend, and also observed first-hand the disturbing trend known as the American Girl Doll.

The Grove is another of these recent developments built to approximate the feel of a real downtown, except with a Disney-esque sense of artifice.  An electric tram runs down the middle of the “street” past big box stores that, if it weren’t for their elaborate façades, would look like any other strip mall.  It is a nice space, much in the same way that Main Street, U.S.A. is a nice place, but I think I’d prefer to stroll down a real main street rather than a recently built recreation.

Borrowed from someone on the internet for non-commercial use.

Prominently placed on the main shopping thoroughfare is the American Girl Doll store.  Have you heard of this trend?  It simultaneously fascinates and disturbs me.

The roots of the American Girl Doll are generally impressive.  Originally released in the mid-1980s, these 18-inch dolls represented 10-year old girls from a variety of periods in American history.  They were dressed in period-appropriate costume and were accompanied by a series of books targeted to 8-13 year olds that brought the characters to life while addressing (in an age-appropriate manner) subjects such as poverty, racism, child labor, etc.  In short, a compelling way for young people to identify with and learn about history.

American Girl Doll 1
American Girl website

In the mid-1990s, though, a “Just Like You” line was released, with dolls representing a wide range of skin tones and eye and hair colors, so that you could purchase a doll that looked just like you.  A variety of accessories are available including matching outfits.  (See the picture above.)  The dolls, sans accessories, cost $100, a price that strikes me as ridiculously expensive for a toy targeted at pre-teens.

On the one hand, I can see a lot of positives about a doll that reflects the wide diversity that exists in our world.  Certainly, any number of women of color have shared stories about not being able to find dolls when they were children that looked like them.  At the same time, especially when you can even wear the same clothes as your doll, this seems to be furthering the growth of unhealthy narcissism.  Not only are we gazing more at our own navels, but now we can have a dolls whose navels look like ours.


What was even more disturbing, though, was walking into the store and seeing two display cases containing rows of the identically-dressed dolls wearing numbers.  Maybe this is just a sensitivity to the too-visible sex trade that exists in Thailand, but this image of women lined up behind a glass wall, wearing numbers and waiting for you to choose them, is especially disturbing.

I don’t know what to make of the whole thing.  As I mentioned early, it is both fascinating and disturbing.  Reading more about the American Girl Doll phenomenon, the company (now owned by Mattel) seems to do a lot of philanthropy and there are many opportunities for young girls to learn important lessons about the world and about issues they may not often hear about.  The messages on the walls of the store – “A confident girl believes in herself!” – are potentially empowering.  That said, I’m still a bit disturbed.

Courtesy Sheening

The best thing that came out of the experience was the opportunity to finally meet Piyapong, one of those Xangans who doesn’t blog often but whose posts are still interesting.  Also met Sheening again, but he hasn’t blogged in so long on Xanga that I’m not even sure what his user name is anymore.


0 thoughts on “Buying Girls from Behind Glass

  1. While the AG dolls are blindingly expensive, they are also built to last. That being said, I understand why you were squigged–but if you separate yourself from the realism of the dolls, they become just another collector’s item, appropriately displayed behind glass. Although, the narcissism monster, which is self-feeding, is very evident in the Just Like You collection. That part I whole heartedly agree with.

  2. American Girl stores are immensely popular among the pre-teen set.  I’m fascinated by your dichotomy, though — I think we always chose dolls from rows of a display (not even from TV in my day), sometimes identical and sometimes not, probably in much the same way that little boys selected trucks or guns or other toys.  I would have loved to have matching outfits with my doll — in fact my mother actually knitted matching sweaters for me and my doll at one point.  You may be right that a sensitivity to the ills of another culture may be the cause of your discomfort — to me there is a little concern with the emphasis on “confidence,” a positive value, but one that pre-teens are not yet aware of.  I think we grow our kids a little too quickly, and then wonder why they become so confused as teens!

  3. Amy has two AG dolls, both of which were gifts (one from a friend at Mattel and the other, oddly enough, from an 8-year old Elle Fanning…). We’ve never identified them as AG dolls and, despite living five minutes from this very store you visited, we’ve never acknowledged that the store exists. It sorta creeps us out — particularly when you look around and see all the girls walking around with their dolls and accessories and (oh my) taking their dolls to the AG salon to get their hair done together.

  4. Mattel again? They can’t get enough with Barbie I guess. I am impressed by the idea but I am also disturbed like you said. Have you ever heard about the origin of Barbie?

  5. I had one of those when I was growing up… and appropriate accessories. I can see where you’re coming from, but to me it’s a combination of a trend / way to build confidence. I suppose it’s possible to see it from both angles. But yeah… those pictures are rather creepy, all the dolls lumped together like that…

  6. They have a restaurant upstairs with the same name too! I passed by the store the other day, did not walk in, the dolls are kinda creepy looking. LOL

  7. fascinating. the dichotomy is all too real for me. After all, L.A. is a privileged man’s Bangkok. Although they operate, in some capacity, for the empowerment of girls in third world countries…..well, it’s just not enough…and sweeping a deficiency under the floor with nice little slogans only helps to grow the monster even more. this post hits tough.

  8. Love it. They have been out for a long while. My oldest read all the Kaya books grade school that go with the dolls. (he never had the dolls) You can get the series books with dolls at the library. Very good literature BTW. Every girl sees herself in their doll so think about This, it is way better than barbie. 🙂 I love that these way over priced dolls are doing some good. 🙂 My nieces had the Kaya and Laura series with books, dolls, clothes, and accessories. I would buy them if I had a daughter or maybe in the future granddaughter.

  9. Oh yes I forgot they have movies that are historically accurate. These are the most educational too. 🙂 HAd to shoot your freak out down DUDE! LOL This is not creepy, see world of barbie to be weird-ed out. 🙂 That B-tch is a sell-out slut Just Joking Ha-ha 🙂 have a good day anyway. I liked the pictures and the subject. JMO

  10. i just heard about these dolls a couple of years ago, and decided it was pretty ridiculous to spend so much money for a doll. then, my former coworker explained her genius work-around solution — she would by a very cheap (about $10?) naked doll at the craft store, and dress it up however way she wanted, and give that to her daughter instead. much more thrifty, and much more personal.

  11. My mom always talked about how when she was little, it was hard to find dolls that looked like her (she had red hair and freckles as I do). There were tons and tons of dolls with blonde hair but none that looked like her. When my sisters and I were young, she always said how happy it made her that there were a wider variety of dolls. I think it’s important for little girls to see dolls that look like them and look like other people in the world. The American Girls, while expensive, kind of filled that sort of void which is sort of cool!

  12. With only sons I never had to face the AG doll thing. My niece had one and loved it. That was before the Just Like You craze. We lived through the Furby frenzy and the Pound Puppy thing too – where what was essentially a cheap toy was going for $$$. To some it is a status thing, to others a way to educate, and to some empowerment… it just depends on your perspective. I can see your take on it  but the 8 yr olds have no concept about the sex trade in Thailand…

  13. I used to get the AG catalogues. The pictures were so good and the dolls looked neat. But Saadi would have nothing to do with them. She didn’t like them and thought they were a trend like the ‘cabbage patch kids’, which she couldn’t stand either. I really liked the way you put your feelings out in this post. I agree with you.

  14. I remember reading about AG years ago. I even mentioned how well they did in business in one of my dept meetings in an attempt to get people to think more about business rather than IT (everyone just thought I was weird). The display of the dolls with numbers is a bit strange. I don’t even think they realize the connection at all. Oh – so that’s Piyapong! Chris, if we ever do meet up in Toronto, I’ll have to take you down to the lake front here. You can take a picture of that red sailboat. I saw it there the other day.

  15. First off, let me thank all of your for your comments.  As I mentioned in my entry, I definitely have mixed feelings about the AG phenomenon and so I really appreciated the many different perspectives you provided.@CurryPuffy – @mike august – You are both right that I failed to mention some of the extended services they offer for the dolls – bring them in for a mani-pedi and hair styling, dine with them in the AG restaurant, etc.  They have countless ways to get their hooks into the little consumers, er… girls who have the dolls.@opticalnoise – For $100, I would certainly expect them to be a collector’s item.  And yet so many girls actually have them out and play with them all the time.  Despite all the positives, they still seem really expensive.@slmret – You have a very valid point, Janet.  We help our children grow up faster and faster and then wonder why they are ill-prepared to be adults.@clubsmiley – A friend of mine mentioned that she has purchased the books and other items for her daughter, but not the doll itself, because she does like the messages that the books contain.@I_love_Burma – Barbie is in a league of her own and certainly has little connection with real women!  =D@oxyGENE_08 – @beowulf222 – @xXxAutumnxLeafxXx – Three votes for the “Creepy” column.@Fatcat723 – Or, if they do provide value, does the value provided match up to the hefty price tag?@Passionflwr86 – One thing this entry (and the responses to it) have really illustrated is that a lot of it depends on the perspective from which you approach the AG phenomenon.@ThePrince – “LA is a privileged man’s Bangkok” – that’s a quote I’ll have to remember, Michael.@Ikwa – Thanks for sharing your own experience.  It is fine to shoot down my sense of being freaked out.  Thanks, too, for the recommendation.@RulerofMasons – I suppose he could, although I don’t quite see how that relates to this discussion.@aPieceOfTheSky – Could anyone dress like a Barbie doll?  I still have to laugh at the scenes in Toy Story 3 where Barbie is admiring Ken’s wardrobe.@kunhuo42 – There are certainly cheaper options, albeit without all of the accessories.@TheCheshireGrins – Thanks for sharing your perspective, too, Meg.  I think it is important for children to have dolls that reflect themselves although maybe there is a line where looking similar can go overboard.@murisopsis – Oh, of course young children are not going to equate the buying of dolls with the sex trade.  Thank goodness!  But the perspective with which you approach the phenomenon definitely changes how you look at it.@ZSA_MD – Glad you liked the post and thanks for the recommendation.@Inciteful – Well, the numbers of them seem to be increasing, though!  Ha ha…@ange_lae – Glad you found it interesting.@ElusiveWords – He looked a bit different than I expected.  I’ll take you up on the offer.@Roadlesstaken – Now you know where you stand, Alex.  Sorry.  Come to Bangkok, though, and I’ll take you down to the river. 

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