Last week, my daughter graduated from kindergarten. On her final day of school, she presented us with her “art portfolio,” a folder full of drawings she did over the last year. One of them in particular caught my eye. It was a painting of my daughter and her mom, both holding dolls. Her hand-scrawled caption read:
“I love my mom. She takes me to American Girl even though I didn’t earn it.”
For those of you uneducated in the ways of Western over-consumption, allow me to explain:
American Girl is a store that sells dolls. Not just any dolls: American Girl dolls. They’re about 18 inches tall, with cherubic faces and thick, luxurious hair. Each doll is lovingly stuffed with ancient Roman coins, stolen Picassos, Honus Wagner baseball cards, and an original copy of the Declaration Of Independence. They must be — nothing else could justify their outrageous price: $110 each.
There are only a few American Girl stores in the whole country, so a trip to one is akin to the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Every girl is compelled by holy decree to make the trip at least once in her lifetime.
Families travel thousands of miles, braving the teeming hordes for a chance to foolishly squander their kids’ college money on overpriced dolls and accessories. Every day, first-time visitors make a ritual sacrifice on the steps of the store, either by spilling the blood of a freshly slaughtered lamb, or by granting American Girl, Inc. power of attorney over the family’s estate and associated financial instruments.
With so many people arriving daily, the threat of a stampede is omnipresent. The worst was in 2007, when word leaked out about a limited-time-only 10 percent discount on doll undergarments. The crowd surged forward, buckling the steel barricades that had been erected around the store. Parents joined in the mayhem, slashing at each other with rudimentary weapons fashioned from iPhone chargers and platinum Visa cards. A pack of unruly six-year-olds set a BMW minivan aflame, then hurled it through the store’s plate glass windows.
Over 1,400 people – and three Pomeranians – lost their lives that day.
The first time my daughter went to American Girl was for a birthday party. I had never heard of the place before, so I foolishly agreed to let her go.
I thought it was odd to have a birthday party in a store. What I didn’t realize is that American Girl is not just a store — it’s a minor metropolis. It occupies its own three-story building. It has a theater. A restaurant. A party facility. A doll hair salon. A hospital.
The doll hospital is just like a real hospital. There are doctors. Nurses. Orderlies. You bring the doll in and they wheel the doll away in a little doll wheelchair. Or, if the injury is bad enough, on a doll gurney. There’s even a helipad on the roof, for when a doll needs to be MedEvac’d after flipping her pink Corvette on the Pacific Coast Highway.
My wife tells me that most of the operations at the American Girl hospital are done free-of-charge. I don’t buy it. That doesn’t sound like American Girl to me. That sounds like Canadian Girl. Or French Girl. An American Girl hospital would charge you $8,000 for a needle and thread. Oh, you want them to thread the needle? That’ll be another $14,000. Up front. In cash.
Concerned parents pace in the waiting room, waiting for word on the fate of their daughter’s dolls. Sometimes, the daughters themselves are there, their brows creased with worry.
A doll doctor pushes through the doors from the operating room. The parents clutch each other.
“How is she?” they ask.
“Not good,” the doctor says, gravely shaking his head. “She’s going to need a transplant.”
“Oh my god.” The father’s knees buckle. The mother catches him and guides him to a chair.
The doctor consults his clipboard. “We can add her to the donor list, but if we can’t find a match –”
“I’ll do it.” The parents turn. Their daughter stands up. “I’ll donate.”
What’s that on her face? Oh yes: it’s brave determination.
The doctor looks skeptical. “There’s no guarantee you’ll be a match, or that you’ll even have enough fiber-fill in your sternum to be a donor. And even if you are, without insurance, the cost could be prohibitive.”
“Don’t worry about the cost,” the girl says. “We’ll pay whatever it takes to save her. Right, daddy?”
“Well, I’m not –” he starts to say, before receiving a sharp kick in the shin from his wife. “I mean, yes. Of course. Money is no object.”
At that moment, the doors of the hospital burst open. Paramedics rush in, pushing a gurney. Behind them follows an elderly Hispanic woman, a Mexican boy in a khaki vest, and a small monkey wearing a pair of red rain boots. Under the blood-soaked sheet is a girl, maybe five years old, with black hair and an oddly football-shaped head.
“Oh, Dios mio!” the elderly woman cries. “Dora, mi nieta! Es un emergencia!”
“What do we got?” the doctor asks the paramedics.
“She’s got multiple gunshot wounds to the upper torso –”
“He just shot her, man,” the boy interrupts. “He fucking snapped!”
“Diego! Silencio!” the old woman says. But the boy continues:
“She was was like, ‘Swiper, no swiping!’ and then he was all, ‘Swipe this, bitch!’ Then BLA-KOW! He just capped her.”
Another parent in the waiting room stands. “You can’t treat her here! This is an American Girl store. How do we even know she’s here legally? Where are her papers?”
With a screech of outrage, the monkey in the rain boots leaps at the woman, sinking his teeth into the shoulder of her Arizona Diamondbacks t-shirt. The woman screams, beating at the monkey’s head with her autographed copy of Going Rogue.
“Someone get that vicious creature out of here!” the doctor shouts. “And grab the monkey too!”
And with that, they disappear into the operating room.
When the day of the American Girl party arrived, my wife dropped my daughter off at the store.
Since she didn’t have her own American Girl doll, she was ushered into an all-pink room with shelves full of dolls to choose from. They allowed her to “borrow” a doll … in the same way that a schoolyard drug dealer will let a kid “borrow” a vial of crack.
The girls filed into the restaurant — they call it a “restaurant,” because it sounds a little less intimidating than “re-education camp” — where they were plied with snacks, cake, and all the Kool-Aid they could drink. The cake was gorgeous: pink cream icing over alabaster-white angel food cake, with a liberal dusting of sodium pentothal.
Once the indoctrination seminar — I mean “party” — was over, the girls were allowed to wander the store to discover for themselves what American Girl is all about.
American Girl is educational. Each doll has a series of books associated with it, which tell tales about the lives of girls in America throughout history. There’s the pioneer girl who helped her family chop wood to build a house. The Civil War era black girl who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. The Manifest Destiny girl who traveled with her family in the Donner Party, learning to survive the winter by consuming human flesh.
The educational part is obviously just a facade, a ploy that lowers your resistance to persuasion by lulling you into a false sense of security.
It’s reminds me of Scientology. You wander into an airport bookstore, looking for something to read on your flight, and — on a whim — you pick up a copy of Dianetics. You think, “Oh, this looks interesting.”
Next thing you know, John Travolta is hooking you up to an E-Meter while Tom Cruise force-feeds you vitamins to purge your thetans.
The American Girl books are really just product catalogs with extra words. That early 20th century city girl who overcame poverty to become a jazz singer? The one whose parents couldn’t afford toys, so she made a doll by sewing two buttons and some yarn onto a used condom? You can buy that very same prophylactic puppet for your doll. For only $49.99!
Admittedly, not all the dolls are educational. There’s also the “Just Like You” series. That’s where girls can choose a doll that is just like her: same hair, same eyes, same defeated father with an overdrawn checking account.
The resemblance is uncanny.
Right about the time the party was over, my wife called from her cell phone.
“Would it be okay if we bought her a doll?” she asked. “All the other girls have one.”
“Sure,” I said. “How much is it?”
“About a hundred and ten –”
Mind you, this doll doesn’t do anything. If I’m paying $110 for a doll, I expect it to walk, sing, dance, shit itself, and cure AIDS. I want to be able to hook it up to my computer and download music onto it. I want it to make phone calls over a 3G network. I want it have the ability to love.
American Girl dolls do none of these things. They just stand there looking plastic and creepy, like Heidi Montag. They don’t even have articulated joints. Elbows, apparently, cost extra.
However, being the loving, generous father that I am, I agreed to let her get a doll.
“Just don’t give it to her yet,” I told my wife. “For a doll like that, she’ll have to earn it.”
I am Scrooge. I will be visited by three ghosts. They will teach me that the most important thing in life is not money, but spending that money recklessly on laughably overpriced toys. I will learn my lesson.
But buying toys is an arms race. If you give a toy like that “just because,” then how do you reward exceptional behavior? With a bigger toy. With a car. A yacht. An armada. Then you have to invade France.
To be clear, I don’t mean she has to get a job. I’m not going to put her to work in a coal mine. I was thinking of something like “no tantrums for a week” or “go three days without bludgeoning your brother with a blunt instrument.”
She doesn’t even really have to do anything. We can find the good things she does naturally over the course of a few days, and use those as an excuse to reward her with the doll.
If we don’t do that, the opposite can happen. Variable reinforcement often leads to repetitive — sometimes unwanted — behavior.
Imagine a bird in a cage. It flaps its wings and a treat pops out. The treat has nothing to do with the flapping, but the bird doesn’t know that. So it flaps and flaps, and another treat pops out. The bird thinks, “I can control the world with my wings. Fear me, humans. I am your God.” (paraphrasing.)
Give a child an American Girl doll for no reason and her brain’s internal wiring gets re-mapped. Subconsciously, she thinks, “What did I do to earn this reward?”
“Must have been the way I kicked daddy in the nuts last night. I’ll do more of that.”
About an hour after she called, I heard my wife’s van pull up outside. My daughter jumped out and ran into the house. Holding her new doll.
“Daddy! Look what Mommy bought me!”
I whispered to my wife. “What happened to making her earn it?”
She shrugged. “She will.”
I wanted to argue that “that’s not how this works,” but it was too late. My daughter had the doll, and she was thrilled. I wasn’t going to take it away from her. I just had to hope that we didn’t accidentally reinforce some bad behavior that she was learning to repeat.
But I’ll be wearing concrete underwear, just in case.