The mother and her daughter are just in from St. Louis on a bus carrying the daughter's Girl Scout troop.
The girl and her doll are costumed in matching silk kimono-style dresses in powder blue ($48 and $24) waiting to have their portrait taken for a mock cover of "American Girl Magazine." ($21.95)
"What doll do you have?" the girl demands as soon as we sit next to them in the studio waiting area. "Is that last year's doll?"
My niece isn't sure. At 7, she is, thankfully, too young to associate "last year's" with any kind of negative connotation. She is carrying "Marisol," barefooted and outfitted in a casual Friday ensemble.
We are here, along with my 8-year-old daughter because her cousin is visiting and any trip through Chicago for a girl under 12 means a mandatory pilgrimage to American Girl Place.
The dolls are ubiquitous here in the summer. You can't throw a hairbrush on Michigan Avenue without hitting an overdressed little doll and her matching American girl.
The mother smiles at me with expectant camaraderie. We are both here with little girls and dolls in tow to worship in the temple of Glamorous Girlhood. "Did you see the show?" she asks. "It was so good, I cried," she confesses.
"They had girls our girls' ages acting out the parts."
We have not seen the American Girl stage production, but it is a safe bet that there is nothing in this place that could make me cry, other than my Visa bill.
On the other side, a mother with an expensive blonde haircut carefully applies lip gloss (Great Smile Lip Shine set $13.50) to her daughter's mouth. Her daughter also has a girl/doll matching ensemble, in pink satin ($44 and $24).
Her doll is "Kit" and had, according to her American girl backstory, grown up in the years of the Great Depression, where she faced hardship with "spirit and determination" and presumably fewer accessories.
That is the intellectual conceit behind the American Girl concept.
The dolls, each with their own series of paperback adventures ($6.95), represent a period of American history.
There is Molly, a "patriotic girl who grows up on the homefront during World War II."
Kirsten is "a brave and pioneering spirit (who) settles on the American frontier."
Addy is a "courageous girl who escapes slavery in the midst of the Civil War.
There is also Jess, Samantha, Nellie, Kaya, Josefina, Felicity and Elizabeth, plus a line of "Bitty" babies ($42).
In addition to their books, each character has a wide collection of pricey period accessories, costumes and furniture.
My daughter has read a few of the books, which are adequately-told stories, if not particularly chock-full of history. I did like the companion reference books for each period, which include facts and photographs that describe the way children lived and played at the time.
But while American Girl Place would be a rich source of material for anthropologists of the future, it would be a monumental stretch to imply that the constant stream of sparkly, well-coiffed and designer-clad little girls here is partaking of anything like a history lesson.
Today's lesson girls, is strictly retail. (New on the American Girl bookshelf: A Smart Girl's Guide to Money: How to make it, save and spend it, $9.95)
For one thing, the best selling doll seems to be the one that has no history at all. Instead "she's just like you!" For $100 this doll comes in 17 varieties of hair, eye and skin color and includes a fluffy white designer dog named "Coconut."
"Choose a doll that matches your look and spirit inside and out," coaches the catalogue.
My daughter did. (Here's Why I Feel Superior to the Other Mommies at American Girl Place, Part One: I did not buy her the doll. She spent her own Christmas money.)
She chose a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl in embroidered jeans and a pink windbreaker. She named her Julie.
I don't hear any of these little girls discussing history.
I desperately want to ask Kit's little girl about the Depression.
But I don't. For one thing, her mother is too chirpily self-conscious about the whole thing. She wants to bond with me in our mutual embarrasment. You don't have to be the president of the National Organization for Women to feel like there is something creepy about the way this place makes a fetish of glamorizing little girls.
You'd think the Girls Scouts would know better, I think, like the hypocrite I am.
But she has sized me up wrong. Because I have another reason to feel superior. (Why I Feel Superior, Part Two: Not only are my girls not wearing lip gloss, I haven't even combed their hair. It doesn't look like Marisol or Julie have seen a hairbrush since they came out of their boxes.)
At first, it bugs me that I am spending $47 for photographs of two girls who still have lunch crumbs on their face and whose hair looks like it hasn't been brushed since yesterday. Then the blonde Mommy brings out the lip gloss and I resolve to do nothing to improve their appearance.
Finally it is their turn. I am not invited in until after the session. Then perky photographer Mary Ellen calls me in to choose from two poses.
"I like the first one because the dolls are looking right at the camera," she says, pointing to her computer screen. I start to laugh. Working here has not destroyed her sense of irony at least.
Then I realize she is not joking.
"They're not looking at anything," I say. "They're not real. They're dolls."
My daughter gives me a look I am seeing more and more these days. It says "You are Embarrassing Me AGAIN."
I tell Mary Ellen I prefer the second pose. The girls object, having instinctively bought into Mary Ellen's more professional view.
But I stand firm, or at least for what passes as "firm" in a store where the best you can hope for is to get out for under $100 and before your girls notice the Doll Salon.
"Look!" screams my daughter. "A doll salon!."
A semicircle of tiny barber's chairs line a countertop. Two "stylists" behind the counter are combing, braiding and misting the hair of nearly identical dolls. For $10 to $20 dollars, they will arrange the dolls' hair into one of four styles: braided down, braided tucked, a ponytail or a flip. "Complete brush out and tangle removal" is included. The secret, according to one of the stylists, is in the water misting. "Never, ever," she tells the little girls watching her earnestly, "comb your doll's hair while it is dry."
I tell one of the little girls in line that when I was a girl, we styled our dolls' hair ourselves, including haircuts. Sometimes we just kept cutting until it was gone. She looks at me, horrified. "Did it grow back?"
I tell the girls there is no way we are paying $20 to have their dolls' hair braided.
Again, I stand firm.
We head back into the boutique, where they run their hands over every matching outfit in the store, sparkly denim jackets, flouncy pink dance dresses, an orgy of sequins, lace, embroidery. There is a wall of "spa products" for "real beauty inside and out."
"Do you want to go downstairs and look at the history dolls?" I ask in a futile effort to avoid looking at the price tags. "Let's go pick out a book."
Their faces drop. I am not in the American Girl spirit. I am sucking all of the glamour out of the experience for them. I sigh, then turn the tag over on a simple pink t-shirt that proclaims "American Girl Place" under a shooting star trailing silver rhinestones. It is $24, plus $8 for the doll version. I cave, they shriek.
I am out of reasons to feel superior.
Then my husband tells me he overheard a mother browsing a window display with her daughter. "Look," the mother said, pointing to a new doll. "There's one you don't have yet."
© 2007 Suburban Kamikaze