I’ve never had much trouble getting in touch with my “feminine” side. I cry every time I see Debra Winger kick the bucket in “Terms of Endearment,” I’d rather watch the Food Network than ESPN, and…well, you only have to read a few posts on this blog to realize that my writing does not center around football, fast cars, or strip clubs (unless you count some fantasies involving Joan Crawford and Jane Russell—have you seen their quarterback shoulders?). But the other day I had an experience that was so cloaked in the asphyxiating pink wash of feminine energy that I wanted to grab a hunting knife at the nearest Big 5, drive up to Big Bear with my blue-collar buddies, and gut a few deer while downing a 12-pack of Schlitz. The cause of my estrogen overdose? I took my daughter Leah to the American Girl store in Los Angeles.
American Girl Place opened at the Grove shopping center at Third and Fairfax this summer but I managed to avoid it until this week. I had been at the one in Chicago several years ago with Leah and my nephew Spencer. My father bought Leah the World War II-era doll named Molly and we took the doll to have tea in the store’s restaurant. The dolls get their own chairs at the table and Spencer was so bummed not to have his own Molly that Kendall took out a small bank loan and bought him one. Hmm, doesn’t every fifth grade boy/rock star dream of their uncle publicly writing about their American Girl doll? Oh well, I can restore Spencer’s rocker cred by mentioning that when we got home he proceeded to chop off Molly’s trademark braids and give her a punker coif that made the doll look like Wendie O. Williams of the Plasmatics. (Truth be told, Spencer thought the hair would grow back.)
On a later trip to New York, Leah’s French grandparents bought her another doll at the American Girl Place on Fifth Avenue, and earlier this summer Leah received a third doll at the opening of the Los Angeles store. While my daughter no longer plays with dolls in the same way she did when she was younger, I think it’s cool that she still enjoys the role-playing opportunities that dolls provide and that she really gets into the history of the different characters. To the company’s credit, these are not your grandmother’s white-bread dolls. The eight dolls in the American Girl collection include Kaya, a 1764 Nez Perce girl “whose deep love for horses and respect for nature nourish her spirit,” Josefina, an 1824 Hispanic girl “whose heart and hopes are as big as the New Mexico sky,” Addy, a courageous African-American girl during the Civil War “who yearns to be free,” and Kit, a clever, resourceful girl “who faces the Great Depression with spirit and determination.”
In addition to the expensive dolls, you can purchase accessories from each time period such as Kaya’s teepee and her horse, Steps High, or Josefina’s weaving loom and her baby goat, Sombrita. You can also buy a variety of clothing from the era (including matching outfits for real little girls), and a library of books that include stories and historical background. Despite the obvious commercialism of the American Girl experience and the obscene prices that make the dolls prohibitive for many children in this country, I have to hand it to the company—at least they are teaching girls about challenging times in our past without whitewashing every event to comply with Lynne Cheney’s version of America. It sure as hell beats Barbie.
And how can you not admire a company that has been condemned by crazy Donald Wildmon’s so-called American Family Association? As I wrote last November, the AFA has accused the doll company of “luring youth into radical feminist ideology by promoting abortion and lesbianism.” I LOVE when those right-wing fanatics lose it to such an extent that even die-hard Republicans start realizing how insane they are. I can assure you, despite the fact that Josefina’s godmother, Tia Magdalena, is a natural healer, she was not performing illegal abortions on their Santa Fe rancho. And yes, World War II-era Molly is now living with her pretty new English friend Emily, a refugee from the London blitz, but I highly doubt the two nine-year-old girls are getting it on while the rest of the family is out getting their food rations. Yet the American Family Association issued a press release last fall urging people “who care about little girls and about the value of human life to refrain from purchasing products and visiting American Girl Place during the entire Christmas shopping season.” That alone makes me want to empty my wallet in the store.
And boy is that easy to do. The store includes large sections for each of the historical characters, a line of “Just Like You” modern dolls that you can match to your own eye and hair color, the Bitty Baby store where younger girls can buy baby dolls for “endless cuddles and kisses” (what’s the emoticon for endless vomiting?), a bookstore, a doll hair salon, a photo studio, a full-scale restaurant, and finally, the American Girl Theatre which was our destination for the day.
Leah was eager to see the American Girls Revue, a live musical drama that features eight young actresses and four adults, each playing several roles. I was curious to see it too since I read that the show’s book and lyrics were written by Gretchen Cryer, the talented actress/writer who made a big splash in the late 1970s with her feminist musical called “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road.” This autobiographical show opened at the Public Theatre in New York on June 14, 1978, and ran for a whopping 1,165 performances. I actually saw the show twice, once with Gretchen Cryer in the lead and once with the wonderful Phyllis Newman. The musical told the story of a woman auditioning for a new act without any of the traditional showbiz props, no makeup, and no fancy gowns. Instead, we see her transform into an outspoken, liberated woman through her songs. It worked back in the day but it also screamed for parody which it received in spades. The best of the bunch was a hilarious SCTV spoof in which Andrea Martin’s liberated TV personality Libby Wolfson joined forces with her best friend Sue Bopper Simpson (Catherine O’Hara) to stage their feminist musical called “I’m Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy’s Gonna Tell Me That It Ain’t.” Pure, unadulterated brilliance. Much to Libby and Sue’s dismay, the one male star of their play, Seth Dick III (Joe Flaherty), cast in the role of “Sexist Pig,” walked away with all of the good reviews.
For the American Girls Revue, Gretchen Cryer (who, by the way, is the mother of actor Jon Cryer, star of “Pretty in Pink”) reunited with her “I’m Getting My Act Together” composer, Nancy Ford. I have to say I was a little surprised by the steep $30 ticket price considering they present this show several times a day and it already succeeded in getting us inside their mega-shopping complex. I gulped as the lights dimmed and the overly cutesy voice of a little girl advised us to turn off our cell phones and enjoy the show. (WHY, I asked myself, do adult directors so often encourage child actors to use that cloyingly sweet fake voice that sounds nothing like any real little girl I’ve ever met?) Prepared for the worst, I watched the eight girls walk out onto the mostly bare stage and begin the play. In the story, the modern-day girls are members of an American Girls Club. A shy girl named Laura has just moved to the neighborhood. Her parents have recently split up and the girl’s mother has no idea how she is going to make ends meet now that the father is out of the picture. Laura knows she cannot afford one of the actual American Girl dolls (nice touch!) but the other girls assure her that this is not necessary (indeed, a doll is never seen on the stage, thank God, especially since the audience was full of them). They then proceed to tell the girl the story of the eight historic characters. As they do, each girl takes a turn becoming one of the characters and the adults appear in costume portraying the other people in that character’s life.
I have to admit that by the end of the first number, “We Will Find a Way,” I was hooked. Cryer and Ford had succeeded in turning what could have been intolerable to adult viewers into a surprisingly engaging and moving show. In this number, Native American Kaya ends up abandoning her friend Speaking Rain in the woods. She feels massive guilt that she left her friend alone and doesn’t know that the girl was found by a neighboring tribe. The adult characters include Toe-ta, Kautsa, and White Braids, who is, you guessed it, a very wise old woman (a required presence in all Native American stories written by white people). My only problem with this part of the play was the ridiculous wig on the lone male in the cast—with its 60s bangs and long black braids it looked like something left over from a production of “Beach Blanket Bingo.”
The male actor fared no better in the next number, “Fly Like the Wind,” in which we see horse-loving Felicity, “a spunky, spritely colonial girl, full of energy and independence,” do battle with the evil Jiggy Nye, a terrible man who abuses his horse and goes after poor Felicity. Jiggy’s wig was only slightly less offensive than the Indian’s. I started worrying that all the male characters in this play were going to be presented as ominous and threatening, thus confirming a grossly unfair stereotype about “feminist plays.” So I was relieved to see Samantha, “a bright Victorian beauty being raised by her wealthy grandmother,” interact with her kind but kooky Uncle Gard who, to the horror of the grandmother, introduces his young niece to that newfangled invention called an automobile.
Considering that this play is intended as a lure into a commercial store, I thought it was surprisingly well done and that the gamble of hiring an established team such as Cryer and Ford paid off big time. The store could have gotten away with a play that was half the length and took half the energy of this full-scale production so I give them credit for going the extra distance and daring to include some challenging aspects of each character’s story such as when Addy learns that there is still plenty of racism to go around even after the slaves are freed.
Leah and I then picked up her Samantha doll from the hair salon ($10 for a quick makeover) and went to lunch. I immediately saw that the store had improved the menu since my visit to the Chicago outlet. While there were the expected chicken fingers and individual pizzas for the little girls, there was fairly sophisticated and delicious fare for the adults, and in a very shrewd marketing move, the addition of decent wines to the menu.
Nevertheless, I was starting to get a little dizzy at the barrage of pink-soaked girliness. There were several birthday parties going on in the restaurant and many of the girls carried the same dolls and wore the same matching outfits, creating the feeling of an army of glassy-eyed “Children of the Damned.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am an occasional sufferer of paedophobia, a fear of dolls. I was always creeped out by my sister’s doll collection, and after seeing the Karen Black classic “Trilogy of Terror,” I was convinced that during the night the sweet-looking dolls would transform into the maniacal devils I knew they really were and chase me around the house nipping at my ankles with their razor-sharp fangs.
After several hours at American Girl Place, my eyes had to readjust to the bright sun on the fake streets of the Grove with the programmed muzak wafting out of carefully hidden speakers. After doing serious time in that oasis of girlhood, I must say it was a relief to discover that the male species still walked the earth. I wanted to high-five every guy I saw and ask him if he wanted to head over to Hooters to watch the game and have a couple of brewskis.