Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Doll Face

Growing up, I believed there were two kinds of girls in the world: girls who were blond, and girls who were ugly. Not being blond, I figured I fell into the latter camp.

There was very little out there to dissuade brown, Jewish me from my conviction. Barbie? Blond. Cinderella? Blond. Evil stepsisters? Brunettes. With large noses. I was too young to know that a Jewish woman created Barbie dolls and that self-loathing was a cultural birthright. All I knew was that dolls didn't look like me, and, therefore, I was ugly.

Not anymore, I ain't. In fact, I'm a doll.

I just caught on to this cultural phenomenon, but if you're an 8-year-old girl and your parents mistake toys for love, you are likely the feudal lady of global doll fiefdom. You, my friend, are an inhabitant of the American Girl Place.

Much has been written of American Girl dolls, and I've ignored all of it. Never mind that more than 12 million dolls have been sold or that travel agencies book vacation packages based around visiting the country's three American Girl Place stores. I'm not a little girl. I don't have a little girl. I didn't see a need to know anything about little girls' dolls.

Oh, what I've been missing!

When the American Girl Place opened at The Grove in Los Angeles in April, Leslie told me I had to go see it.

"It's like a cult," she promised.

She said the girls all go in as normal people and come out wide-eyed and Kool-Aid drunk. What transpires inside the two-story doll mecca, she couldn't say. She herself was afraid to step foot in there lest she get bitten on the neck by Samantha or Jess and end up sold in a box, gap-toothed with polyester hair.

So I told her I'd scout it out first.

As the doors parted, so, too, did the clouds. And the angels did sing. Two whole floors of dolls. A museum. A café. A photo studio. A theater. A dolly hairdresser. A dolly doctor. A clothing store where you could buy matching clothes for you and your doll. Matching clothes!

But wait, it gets better.

Adults can argue embryonic stem cell research and human cloning all they want. Any red-blooded American Girl can tell you clones already exist. Duh. They're called Just Like You Dolls. And – here's the greatest part – they look Just. Like. You!

At the dolly hair salon, 8-year-old Shannon, of Seal Beach, was gingerly handing over Elizabeth to a hair stylist. Shannon had light brown hair. Elizabeth did, too. Shannon had blue eyes and the sweetest freckles around her nose. Elizabeth did, too. Shannon had her hair up in a ponytail with a pink ribbon. Elizabeth did, too.

Shannon said she'd had Elizabeth for a year and had never before been here and had never before had Elizabeth's hair professionally styled and was, gulp, nervous. She looked nervous. Eerily, Elizabeth did, too.

I backed away from the girl and her proxy and headed upstairs to find my own Just Like You Doll. Her name, according to the box, is GT26 G. Medium skin, curly dark brown hair and amber eyes. And, oddly, she comes with a toy dog that looks a lot like Sketch. For $102 I could have my own little effigy, a book and the dog. And for an extra $24 I could dress her in an outfit that looked strangely like the one I was already wearing. How did they know what I'd be wearing that day? And what's with the dog?

My throat suddenly started to constrict and fill with the very strong taste of focus group. Had I been studied and classified and categorized into a type?

As unhealthy as all my blonde worship might have been as a child, at least I never thought of myself as a type. Standing in that store, I finally realized that I shouldn't have envied the blond girls their Barbie look-alikes. While I was being subliminally told that I was ugly, they were being brainwashed into thinking they were far worse – not unique.

It's a life lesson that American Girls today will likely never get. Now everyone is not unique. Everyone is classifiable. Only time will tell if they're worse off for it. I put GT26G back on the shelf, tiptoed past Shannon and her voodoo doll and walked out of the store.

I'd rather be ugly than a type.

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