This year my daughters each started a new school. Our new commute is certainly shorter and quicker, but also somewhat perplexing. We pass an American Apparel billboard. American Apparel is a company that confuses me. They manage to do quite a few things right: they are union and their clothing is made here in Los Angeles, meaning they are one of the few companies who use American in their brand name and actually sell American-made products… and yet. Oh, and yet those billboards! I mean, the models are always clad, it’s just their poses: prone with posteriors raised, or supine with their limbs pretzeled as if bound in the trunk of a car, or pouting and sullen as if internally reliving their years of abuse. It’s not overt enough to truly object to without coming across as a world-class prude. So, I try not to. Instead I find myself admiring the honesty of Hustler over the insidiousness of American Apparel, and how on earth is a mother supposed to rationalize that?
The other perplexing part of my commute is that, whilst having only two daughters, I transport three “American Girls.” It is not a car pool, simply my two daughters plus an 18” “American Girl” doll from the company of the same name’s historical collection who belongs to my younger daughter. I withstood the “American Girl” company for an admirable amount of time. It seemed to me a bastion entitlement. An overpriced doll, with even more shockingly priced accouterments and accessories, was something I could neither condone nor afford. Neither did I want my daughter spending her time brushing the hair and smoothing the flounces of a doll created out of some kind of revisionist history. And then- but of course- my youngest was invited to a birthday party in the tea-room of the Los Angeles store. She loved it. She enthused about the Jello-stuffed orange segments, the tiny sandwiches, the folded napkins, the sweets and treats. Everything delighted her, and especially the doll she was loaned to share tea with. Her name was Kit Kittredge and she had prevailed through the Great Depression for gosh sakes! More importantly to my daughter, when you lay her down her eyes closed.
Three weeks later, on her own birthday, we marched her into the American Girl store and she purchased a Kit Kittredge of her very own. We are a middle-class family of middle-class means, and her “Kit-Girl,” as she calls her, was purchased with the help of her parents, grammy and Auntie Stacy to show this was a special thing, and perhaps the only thing she would buy from this store. See, whilst I had looked at the Kool-Aid and, perhaps, mixed the Kool-Aid a little, I was certainly not prepared to drink the Kool-Aid.
But then I really inspected this doll and I gave a little. I kind of liked this Kit Kittredge gal. She is very well made- far away and not in America- but very well made indeed. She is a girl, not a woman, and her likes and aspirations, as written in her accompanying bio, are girlish. I was never into dolls as a girl myself, but neither was I all feminist against them either. I wasn’t offended that Barbie’s measurements were ludicrous. Honestly, in today’s modeling world she’d probably be told to lose a cool ten pounds. Nor was I offended by the materialism inherent in her dream house and Malibu holdings. If I was offended by anything it was that she was good at everything: she was a doctor, an equestrian, a model, a singer, a marine biologist. She was too enterprising by half. It was off-putting. I will admit to being offended by the Bratz dolls, not because they looked like utter skanks, but because they were unable to look you directly in the eye. They always looked slightly to the left of you, the scheming hussies.
And, on the subject of scheming, let me tell you of the biggest scam American Girl has managed to pull off: the company has a publishing division. Perhaps you have been unfortunate enough to read books based on dolls. Give me a Barbie book and I’ll show you the detritus of literature. But… American Girl publishes great books. My older daughter had one about starting middle school. It basically explained this: it can be a tough transition; there are many types of people; some of them are assholes; be true to yourself and you will find ‘your people’; if you find ‘your people’ and they are the assholes then you have some work to do. All true. They have books on puberty, parents divorcing, animal husbandry, how friendships work, how boys work. They are all written in a relatable style with resources if the subject needs to further explored and the emphasis is always on being a decent human being. They also publish books of games and puzzles, they have a magazine and fiction books based on their dolls. I was kind of floored by how much I appreciated these books. What if, I mean what If, all along American Girl just wanted to publish books on how to be decent and, in order to do so, purported to be a bastion of rampant American consumerism with its Jello-stuffed orange slices, eye-closing dolls and 1/3 scale doll-furniture and matching doll/girl outfits? It would be the most wily act of beneficence perpetrated by a publicly traded company ever!
What if, in turn, American Apparel simply wants to sell well-made, American-made basic T-shirts, but knows it can only succeed if their clothing has the whiff of certain scandal and possible abuse on it. Certainly Mr. Dov Charney, their CEO, is capably maintaining this ruse with his many alleged acts of workplace sexual harassment. I mean obviously that’s why he’s doing that, right? We all saw Iron Man; he’s kind of a misogynistic jerk who’s all for America, and we love him for it.
Still, on that drive to school I don’t want my girls to ask why the young woman on the billboard looks like a drowning victim because I really, really don’t know. Can it honestly sell more product? Is it truly empowering for an employee to say, “I am a union worker!” if it needs be followed by “at American Apparel.” All I do know is that I am in equal parts concerned and excited for my two made-in-America daughters. They are indeed American Girls and they have a lifetime of possibility ahead of them because of that and in spite of that.
Moira Quirk is a writer living in California.