The American Girls Revue

at American Girl Place

By Carol Burbank

At Christmas children are America’s most aggressive consumers. They wheedle and doe-eye their parents into buying trendy, expensive toys, in effect forcing mom and dad to fund the manufacturers’ carefully cultivated market niches. If it glows, beeps, burps, or explodes, it’s probably going under someone’s tree. Every year I watch my brother’s children fall upon their presents, tearing open bright packages in a near hysterical frenzy of desire. Then, exhausted and cranky, they clutch something furry or alluringly mechanical and glaze over like overstuffed sugarplums. Any proprietary joy I might feel in this spectacle is generally dimmed by the wreckage of credit-card debt and privilege scattered under the tinseled boughs of Christian capitalism.

It’s even easier to feel cynical while shopping the glittering urban mall of Michigan Avenue, the most expensive mile in town. There’s no haven from the relentlessly alluring portable luxury displayed in every shop window. Pre-Christmas crowds this year included the usual mix of customers, gawkers, and beggars. But among them were a few new faces: well-scrubbed little girls in velveteen dresses and shiny patent leather shoes on their way to American Girl Place on Chicago Avenue to see a play, have a pricey tea party, and ogle American Girl dolls, accessories, and books.

I expected nothing more from The American Girls Revue than an upscale human version of Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree, despite the impressive credits of the director (Chicago’s Kim Rubenstein) and the playwright-composer team (Broadway notables Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford). After all, toy and memorabilia manufacturers like Disney have used musical theater to market their goods for generations. Audiences who see The Lion King on Broadway must exit the theater through a gift shop. And Saturday-morning TV is full of cartoons that are mostly advertisements for action figures and other dolls. The innovation promised by American Girl Place was that the stories, based on the company’s well-written series of books about American girls throughout history, could be empowering to a group of young consumers pummeled with Barbie propaganda.

In fact, the American Girls have recently become Barbie’s stepsisters, because Mattel bought Pleasant Company–the corporation founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1986 to sell the American Girl line–for $710 million. Elizabeth Richter, producer and director of the theater, assured me that Mattel thought of the historically correct dolls Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Molly, and Samantha as “the jewels in its crown” and that theater, television, and feature films had been part of the plan from the beginning. But until I saw the remarkable performance space at American Girl Place–the only such theater in the country–I was defiantly Scrooge-like in my disdain for the whole idea.

The American Girls Revue is only part of the experience. Tucked neatly into a corner of the basement showroom, the theater is a girl-sized auditorium with plush red seats and a raked stage painted to look like a grassy field. There are nooks on either side for props and musicians. The intimacy of the design perfectly suits the script, which introduces eight girls in a contemporary American Girl club who perform stories from the books. The child performers are delightful, and the adult actors who step in as mothers, mean neighbors, and various relatives appear and disappear like magical storybook characters, lovingly assuring the girls center stage. Seven casts of girls rotate, so that everyone but the stage manager is working a relatively sane schedule and the performers remain fresh and enthusiastic.

The stories the characters act out will be familiar to any American Girl fan: Josefina (1824) embraces her dreams of being a healer, Addy (1864) escapes from slavery and begins her new life in Philadelphia, Kirsten (1854) befriends a Native American, Samantha (1904) follows her convictions and gives an honest speech about factory labor, Felicity (1774) frees a horse, and Molly (1944) welcomes her father home from World War II. These stories help the club members deal with homesickness, bratty sisters, and various other universal problems. The songs are rousing and sweet, especially the closing anthem, a lovely tribute to girls’ strength.

Children and parents in the audience sing along: “I can be brave, I can be true, I will do the best that I can do. And I can dream, I can dare, I can keep on trying if I really care. If I reach out, I can belong, I can be a friend, lend a helping hand so strong. I’ll sing with my own voice, the voice inside of me. And I will be the best that I can be.” Sounds a little hokey, I know, but I was surprised how moved I was by this affirmation of girlhood, a reflection of the freedom the feminist movement offered me when I was in college. Unfortunately that kind of affirmation is still a rarity, despite the changes that have freed women to make more choices in our lives–just a few years ago, a talking Barbie would happily announce, “Math is hard!” or “Let’s go shopping!”

In short, there’s more to the show than a sales pitch. It’s good children’s theater, and if parents can afford the $25 ticket and keep their wallets tucked away as they pass through the store and cafe, the experience is pretty fabulous. Watching the show, I daydreamed about bringing my nieces to see it, then felt my bah-humbug impulse return when I toured the main showroom and tearoom after the play. I kept reminding myself of the dearth of decent toys for most children as I looked at the clothes and well-researched props for each doll and watched the salespeople and the guards talk respectfully to their child customers. The little girls happily clutched newly bought boxes of dolls, and the parents ordering shipments of doll accessories were usually smiling. Mothers and daughters sipped tea from little cups and ate pudding from tiny flower-shaped bowls in the polka-dot decor of the cafe, relishing their $18-a-head tea party. Everything was so nice. American Girl Place even has these beautiful dioramas for each doll, so girls can create their own little theaters with historically accurate backdrops.

The store was jumping. Girls were getting their pictures taken to be plastered on the cover of a sample American Girl Magazine. They propped their dolls on the little chairs at the tea tables and offered them little spoonfuls of snacks. They chose their very own modern dolls–the newest American Girl line, which offers different skin, hair, and eye colors to reproduce those of the girl owner. They planned little home-theater events and learned about history in the process.

Then why, I wondered, couldn’t I shake a creepy feeling about the whole project? Moved by the musical’s stories about powerful girls, I couldn’t help but wonder who can afford such expensive affirmation. For about $1,000 you can get a complete set of clothes, toys, furniture, and books along with a doll ($88 by herself); for $30-$100 you can even dress like your doll. You can get a Christmas or Hanukkah outfit, a wheelchair or a ski set (complete with cast and crutches). Every fantasy, every race, every differently abled story, every difference can be enacted by these dolls, with their owners’ help. If the parents have the cash.

American Girl Place and its products may offer girls a welcome alternative to the Spice Girls, but the store’s strategically designed showrooms create an overpowering urge to buy, buy, buy. And obviously families are seizing the opportunity, though perhaps they’re budgeting their holiday expenditures to do so or are trying vainly to hold their own against the tide of merchandise that beckons once they step into the store. But except for the affordable paperback books–which can be found in every library and are even featured at the downscale Toys “R” Us–the American Girl experience seems limited to a very upwardly mobile class.

It’s ironic that the marketing of feminist ideas for girls should have the same limitations as the feminist movement itself. Although the dolls are multicultural, the class that can afford them–and the audience for the play–is primarily white, just like the feminist movement of the 1970s that paved the way for this product line. The middle and upper classes can embrace the American Girl affirmation, “I will be the best that I can be,” with confidence, knowing that the bright future promised by the anthem is within reach. Feminism has mostly helped a privileged class of women. And they know that any risk in living up to the brave promise of the anthem will be offset by money, education, and access to power–a buffer that American Girl consumers celebrate with their purchases.

My American Girl Place experience left me torn between gratitude and doubt. This year the Christmas tree will shelter a Josefina for my niece April and a trunk of new American Girl doll clothes for Lauren. I’m providing a subscription to the American Girl Magazine. Caught up in the econodrama of these dolls, I seem to be persuaded that this product can guide the next generation of Burbanks to a better adulthood.

Probably it’s unreasonable to expect a doll to fulfill the revolutionary promise of its carefully marketed ideals. And only time will tell whether Mattel will blunt the positive message of its new subsidiary. But it would be wonderful if the dolls and their props and their stories became more accessible. As it is, girls from families without money will continue to get hand-me-down, lending-library affirmation, if they’re lucky.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.