When I became a mother I took a solemn vow that my daughter would not be inundated with princess stories and Barbie dolls. Somehow I would protect her from these insidious cultural forces that narrowly define what women can embody.
I remember one Thanksgiving, my then three-and-a half-year-old daughter proudly announced,
“I'm not a princess! I... am a midwife.”
I secretly gloated, feeling my efforts had paid off. At that time I had no idea how hopelessly naïve I was to think that I could shelter her from the inevitable infiltration of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Barbie and Ken.
By 4 ½ she was obsessed.
At first I was mortified and felt waves guilt, as if I'd failed somehow as a mother.
But the sparkle in her eye and excitement in her voice as she played Princess was contagious and I couldn't reprimand her for falling prey to Disney. After all, aren't we all romantics at heart?
With this experience came the profound realization that parenting and dogma simply don’t mix, and what was most critical to her developing into a strong, intelligent, creative, compassionate woman was my unconditional love. So I hid my disgust….
until the American Girl (AG) doll came on the scene and created another ethical dilemma for me:
Do I choose unconditional love and acceptance or teach her the value of conscious consumerism?
The AG doll reminded me of Cabbage Patch dolls, which were popular shortly after my family had moved from a hippie commune in Tennessee to mainstream society in Hollywood Florida back in 1984. There was no way in hell my mom was going to spend the then exorbitant price of $30 for the doll! Instead, we got the look-alikes, who lacked only the signature of authenticity on their butt.
I rationalized that if I survived, so would Nehama.
For those unfamiliar, AG dolls run between $115-$134 depending on how many accessories you get. They were originally made by the Pleasant Company in 1986, but were bought out by Mattel 12 years later—a fact I learned from a gorgeously flamboyant salesman when my daughter and I went to an actual American Girl doll store in Miami.
I had questioned the man about the extravagant prices (toothbrush $14, beach chair $50, car $350), hoping to find some redeeming quality or company policy, like donating a portion of the profits to a charitable organization.
Instead he proudly declared, “We have 100% customer satisfaction.”
I was outraged. $350 for a doll car??? The shit's not even made in America!
That’s right, the American Girl doll is actually not American at all. They and their plethora of accessories are manufactured in China, quite possibly by sweat shop labor at scandalous prices, and then shipped back to America with a hefty tag.
When she received the doll from a friend as a birthday gift I had to embrace it.
Cécile, an African American doll from New Orleans, became Nehama’s most prized possession.
At least she’s of the same skin color, I thought.
To be fair, the book that comes with the doll was educational, full of colorful descriptions of life for free people of color in New Orleans in 1853.
Nehama was glowing the day I took her to the American Girl doll store in the mall, which includes a beauty parlor where the doll can get her hair done or her ears pierced. A café was attached, complete with booster seats for the dolls, smoothies, sandwiches and ice cream.
As Nehama’s eyes lit up mine rolled to the back of my head.
We wandered through the store for what seemed like hours. With the limited $20 budget I gave her and after hours of careful deliberation, Nehama wisely decided to get some smoothies in the café. I was secretly relieved that she chose a smoothie over making a purchase of goods.
As we sat in the café I tried to explain, in simple 7-year-old terms, the link between corporate greed, overseas labor, and environmental destruction.
Bless her little heart for listening patiently. After I spoke she said,
“Don’t worry mom, maybe I’ll understand when I’m older.”
I smiled and decided to shut up and enjoy my smoothie and the company of my daughter.