I stalked the store’s main floor whispering, “This is all a lie. They will break your heart.” A few moms ushered their kids away from the crazy twenty-something, but the girls were too engrossed in their new friends to give me a second thought. I was trying to spare them the pain of seeing their beloved doll disappear from the American Girl store as if she never existed. It wasn’t my fault if they didn’t heed my warning.
Visiting the American Girl flagship store in Chicago wasn’t meant to be such a traumatizing experience. I thought I had come to terms with the fact that my beloved Samantha Parkington doll had been discontinued – or archived – in 2009. Like many young women, American Girl was a large part of my childhood. Each month’s issue of American Girl magazine was read from cover to cover. A book on how to throw the perfect sleepover had worn corners from being repeatedly bookmarked with folded corners. My neighbor and I even built an American Girl museum fort with our little brothers cajoled into being our sole visitors.
So as my roommate strode through the revolving door in anticipation of seeing her Kirsten doll in her natural habitat, I tried to buck up and put on a happy face. After all, hadn’t I looked forward to this day since that American Girl headquarters episode of Oprah which I watched in wide-eyed rapture? We stood in the front entrance of the behemoth department store as a swarm of girls pointed at the dolls encased in a round, plastic display.
Then our visit took a dark turn. My roommate circled the case once, twice, three times.
“Kirsten’s not here,” she said in confusion.
What was this, “1984”? Were the Thought Police sweeping up dolls in the night? A well-meaning employee chose the exact wrong time to ask if we needed any help. We confronted her about the disappearance of Samantha, Kirsten and Felicity, but she gave us a funny look and laughed it off. It was clear she thought it was time we moved on.
We did the polar opposite of move on. I ran to the Molly display, removed the doll’s glasses and clutched her closely in an attempt to pretend Samantha still existed. While I thought I had taken the retirement of Samantha in stride, something about my friend’s shock over the discontinuation of Kirsten brought it all back. I think we both thought that a doll rooted in history was safe from becoming obsolete. Maybe we were just victims of egocentrism. We thought our childhood experience was so important that these dolls were immune to company whims.
I could act high and mighty and say it’s elitist for a company to think they can control what aspects of history are worth highlighting. Or I could say that a $105 doll plus book series is consumerism at its worst. But really I’m just hurt because my childhood had been relegated to a single panel of wall space. A pocket-sized Samantha shared a small corner of the store with all the other miniature versions of the historical dolls past and present. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t judge the new dolls so quickly. The American Girl series taught me life lessons, instilled a passion for history and gave me a doll that was about more than just the clothes and accessories (The American Girl catalogue was more for looking than actual shopping in my house).
The more recently introduced dolls are exposing girls to new historical eras and the experiences of different groups of women across time and space. Many of the stories have to do with girls living in times of change, trying to understand the past while being proponents for change in the future. Even if the nobility of the cause is slightly undercut by a high price tag, I know that young girls get something out of these dolls and their stories. I just wish they still knew about Samantha, the curious and bright Edwardian era girl who wanted to be either a painter or President of the United States and always stood by her best friend Nellie.
I know for a fact that she makes a great childhood friend.
You can read more from Samantha Suchland on her blog.