Written by Sean Deveney
Seeing as I am 36 and have no children, I am not one to hang out at toy stores, as that just seems a sure way to wind up on some sort of unsavory registry. I do, however, have a 3-year-old goddaughter named Kadie, and not long ago, I was in need of some Christmas loot for her. I am an open-minded guy, and though the word “girl” is a pretty prominent part of American Girl Place, I figured I would be welcome there nonetheless. With that in mind, I stepped out of the early-winter Manhattan chill and into the three-level American Girl mecca on 49th and 5th Avenue.
I was quickly reminded, though, that there are places for boys and there are places for girls. Let there be no mistake: American Girl Place is not a place for boys.
I should say I have nothing but respect for the American Girl concept. Assuming there is a girl-doll continuum that cannot be broken—girls will always have dolls—American Girl seems to be a respectable brand. No doll should run $95, as Lanie, the reigning “Girl of the Year,” does, but hey, that’s capitalism. You charge what people pay. And American Girl actually pushes education (they have a line of historical characters and include books with their dolls). Its parent company, Mattel, also makes Barbie, and it is comforting to know that the more success American Girl has, the more it knocks a couple cup sizes off Barbie’s bandwagon.
However, I repeat: American Girl Place simply should not have male visitors.
That was clear from the get-go. The interior looks like a salmon got into a fight with a carnation—it’s nothing but shades of pink. Near the entry, a middle-aged man and his son stood, shoulders hunched, eyes glazed like old Coke bottles. When I asked how long they’d been there, the kid muttered, “Three days.”
The effervescent young greeter asked me, “Can I help you, sir?” putting the emphasis on “Help” as if it was what I would need most. I could sense the excitement in the building—young girls tugging their moms from section to section, tee-heeing with delight. But it was like being at a cricket game or watching someone else win at blackjack. You understand something positive is happening, but you just can’t muster any emotion for it.
I told the greeter, “Uh, no, I don’t need help. I am going to look around.”
I started by hopping on the escalator—familiar territory, safe, and not pink—which carried me up to the café. Yes, there is a café at American Girl Place, and it bills itself as, “the place for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and parties.” That explains why high tea goes for $20 a person. That’s some cup o’ oolong.
But there’s more. You can visit the American Girl Place photo studio, and have your picture taken with your doll. You can stop by the hair salon, where one of the AGP “stylists” will give your doll to a new ‘do, a facial, an ear-piercing and some new nails. You can also visit the American Girl Place gift shop. That’s right. This is a store with a gift shop.
All of this is, of course, overwhelming to the average male. And it struck me, standing amid the pink and the nails and Lanie and the oolong, it’s designed to be overwhelming to us. It’s supposed to alienate me. It’s designed to seem as strange to me as some of the things I do— shots of tequila, paying $200 to run a fantasy football team, spending three hours on a piece of smoked pork—must seem to a little girl. I don’t like dolls, I don’t like the culture of dolls and that’s OK. I don’t have to.
I did look around for a doll that might appeal to Kadie, before realizing I am utterly out of touch with the way 3-year-old girls think and I should just ask Kadie’s parents what she might want. I left, empty-handed, pretty sure I would not return. And really, isn’t that just as it should be?