Dolls Gone Wild
Me, my young daughters, and our many glitter-haired, tiny-waisted, heavily accessorized roommates.
The winter disco chalet has an operational ski lift. It has six rooms, three stories, a hot tub, and a light-up skating rink. You can make it snow by feeding white plasticine beads into the fireplace and pressing a button that blows them up and out of the chimney. The people who live there have hair down to their shins. They have tiny waists, big asses, and long legs. Their dress is ostentatious — vinyl short shorts worn over tights, platform boots, faux-fur coats in jewel tones. They are called L.O.L Surprise O.M.G Dolls, and you might actually exclaim “LOL OMG” when you see one because, although they are 6 inches tall, they are, simply put, snatched.
I have two little girls, and over years of Christmases and birthdays, with the help of indulgent grandmothers and aunts and friends, we have acquired a considerable number of these. They are stored, along with their chalet, on our enclosed front porch, and they share the space with the American Girl Rainforest House (hammock, sleeping loft, outdoor shower) and the Barbie Store-It-All Doll Accessory Rolling Bin. There are stray others out there too: a few Rainbow High dolls, a plush and posable fashion doll called a Na Na Na, which came in a furry backpack with bunny ears that converts into a small bedroom.
My husband and I had hopes for this space. That it might serve as a playroom, yes, but also that it might be a nice entry-point to our home, with a bench for removing shoes, kids’ rainboots lined up neatly underneath, hooks for coats. We’d hoped the feeling would be “here is an inviting and orderly home.” Instead, we have what we have begun to call Doll World and its many lurid inhabitants. Their unblinking eyes greet you as you cross our threshold. With the holidays on the way, their ranks are sure to grow.
Our Doll World starts to feels restrained on our annual trip to the American Girl Cafe. If you’re thinking of visiting, half a Valium would not be ill-advised. I take my older daughter once a year at the holidays, a lunch date, just the two of us, and every time, I almost have a panic attack. It is the noise, the lights, the colors, the amount of money changing hands. It is the hundreds of dolls, so many dolls that the very concept of a doll becomes almost incomprehensible, the way saying a word over and over strips it of its meaning. Dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls, dolls.
To get to the cafe, you must first fight through midtown crowds. If it is the holiday season these crowds are hellish, grow more hellish the closer you get to the Christmas tree. The café is located on the north side of Rockefeller Plaza, on the basement level of American Girl Place. The storefront gleams like brass. The holiday window display features this year’s big-ticket item, a $1,076 Ultimate Dollhouse Bundle, 4.5 feet tall by 5.5 feet long, with three floors, nine play areas, and “luxury amenities that include a spinning ceiling fan, working lights, secret storage, and more.”
Once inside the store, you have to find the escalators. The way children move in this space: a dead run. Parents speed-walk behind them saying things like “Slow down, Olivia!” A child headed to the cafe will be tempted first by the Doll of the Year, her bunk beds, her ice skates; the white fur shrugs you can buy for both a doll and a kid; the mystery packages of doll accessories ($8). At last, you will reach the escalators, and be delivered down to the restaurant. There, more obstacles await, in the form of the historical dolls — the World War II one, the Motown singer, the plucky cub reporter from the 1930s. You will have to make promises (yes, we will look after lunch, we will look at every doll), and then finally, you are checking in with the host.
If you’re thinking of visiting, half a Valium would not be ill-advised.
My daughter is 7, and, to her, this windowless restaurant is the height of glamour. A large translucent screen with an illustration of a hot pink flower separates it from the store. The napkin rings are hair ties that you can take home. The cafe invites its patrons to bring a doll with them and provides doll chairs that grip the table. If you don’t have a doll, you can borrow one. We brought one, of course. It’s Corinne Tan, 2022 Girl of the Year, last year’s Christmas gift from her grandmother. Corinne has teal streaks in her hair and hails from Aspen. She sits with us at the table, and she is not the only Corinne in the place, and other Corinnes, we notice, are in slightly better shape, as if, perhaps, their owners have not yet lost the special American Girl-branded wire hairbrush that smooths their hair without frizzing it.
Our waiter wears a headset and is extremely harried. His job — server at a doll restaurant in Rockefeller Center at Christmastime — seems like one of the hardest in the world. The place is packed and the clientele are mostly girls younger than 10. He offers us the menu and hustles away to a back room where he is working a birthday party. The door swings open, and we hear squealing.
American Girl is a bit of a black box. To try to get information about how many people visit at the holidays, how many dolls and doll accessories it sells, how many girl-sized AG x Janie & Jack party dresses, or branded strawberry cheesecake Jelly Bellies, or Swarovski-crystal-adorned Sapphire Splendor Collectors Dolls, I call a puzzled customer service representative, convince her my aims are not sinister, take her word for it that she’ll submit my questions to the PR contact, and hope for a reply.
I want to get a sense of how many other kids in the region, the country, the world, are as doll-obsessed as my own. I have never heard any of my friends with kids reference a similar grand-scale infatuation. There is murkiness around it. Almost as if letting your house rapidly fill with dolls is gauche. And yet, my kids are not — can’t be — the only ones. Indeed, when an American Girl spokeswoman eventually does get back to me, she will not give me any useful information about how many kids the store serves, except to confirm “a lot.”
Here’s the thing about the American Girl Cafe: the food is pretty good. The lunch menu is a prix fixe. To start, they bring us complementary cinnamon rolls and invite us to read about why on the back of the menu. (The founder liked them.) Then comes a tower with strange little appetizers — mini pretzels and mustard, pita triangles and artichoke dip, two bites of yogurt in a flower pot. I order a beet salad and my daughter has cheese pizza, and these are followed by more flower pot-based cuisine, this time chocolate mousse. I have a glass of rosé, and suddenly I like the place more. Maybe it is chic to eat somewhere without windows.
My daughter is having so much fun. We chat about the upcoming holidays. I ask her what she wants for Christmas, and you already know the answer. It’s dolls. She has not yet settled on which she will ask for. She is still auditioning candidates. When we run errands at Walmart or Target, she asks to hold a doll. This is not to buy, just to look at. I always let her, and she gazes at the doll, invariably hideous, whispering little stories to herself as we walk around.
I get the check, tip our poor waiter, and prepare myself to look at each and every doll outfit, doll face, and piece of doll furniture, as promised. I notice the woman beside us is paying too. She is also here with her daughter, a girl of about 12 with a bored, pre-teen mien and black shiny, skin-tight disco pants worn with a crop top. I wonder about the circumstances of their lunch date. Which one of them insisted on it? Likely the mother. Doesn’t she long for a reprieve from Doll World? Isn’t she content to say goodbye to it forever? Or does something happen, as a phase of your kid’s life draws to a close, to make you want to hold on to it at any cost?
The things my kids like are, for the most part, garbage. For years, people tried to give us beautiful toys. Thoughtful, brainy toys. Toys to build STEM skills. I remember, in particular, a set of wooden arches that fit one into the next, like a rainbow. They were muted shades of blue, made in Scandinavia. My daughter looked at those arches once and never again. They did not have feline, Disney-princess faces. They did not have glitter hair or shoes she could take off. They did not have a tricked-out ski chalet to pine for.
What do I do about the acquisitive nature of my children? What do I do about their bad taste? I think the answer is probably nothing. It’s all so transient; they’ll be in disco pants before I know it. Anyway, when my first daughter was born, that very first night, I had a realization. She was someone already. It would be vain and stupid, pointless, to try to make her like things she didn’t like.
My kids’ dolls have troubling body shapes and are more than a little sexualized. The doll industry doesn’t even feint toward careers anymore. You will not find an O.M.G doll who is an astronaut or a veterinarian. But I’m weak. So, I take them to American Girl place and let them order the prix fixe. I stay up late on Christmas Eve assembling dollhouses. If there is a price to pay for their future avarice, I will bear it. I get them their ugly dolls and watch their faces light up.
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