Like trying to understand Jazz
I was not a popular girl. I had books and I drew, but I didn’t manage to connect to popular culture. There was the music scene for a couple of years when I would have needed to walk around wearing headphones not to absorb the words to every song on “Slippery When Wet,” but for the most part a lot of the fads and fashions bypassed me without a trace.
Rainbow Brite, those candy-colored pony dolls, Barbie, Strawberry Shortcake, Charlie’s Angels, even the Smurfs. I didn’t own a one. Even the Cabbage Patch Doll craze didn’t catch me. A friend in Canada bought one for my mom to give to me for Christmas that year that they were SO HUGE but she sat on the shelf and collected dust.
Now that I’m wading into this insanely consumerist child culture from the other end, as it were, I’m discovering that there’s whole countries of crap that I managed to not even be aware of. In particular, American Girl.
There’s an American Girl movie coming out and a lot of the moms I see at the park have been talking about it. Plus, it’s hard to miss the ads — one was playing at the deli counter at my grocery store yesterday. From the conversations and the tone of the preview, it was clear that I was not only supposed to know who Kit Kitteredge was, I was supposed to be thoroughly familiar with the whole line. The last straw was an article Thursday on Slate where women who had grown up with the dolls talked about them.
Not only had I not grown up with the dolls, I had never heard of the damned things.
(If you, like me, managed to skate through life without having this touch you, here’s what I’ve gleaned from a few days of poking around: It’s a line of dolls, each one has a series of books about them. The characters are all spunky young girls from various eras of American history. They are clean, wholesome, virtuous, hard-working, polite, and otherwise annoyingly perfect. Their plots are designed to give you a tour of the highlights of any given place and time. Apparently the movie is about a girl during the Depression.)
This whole thing makes me a little worried… once again I’m completely out of touch with the mainstream culture. This is partly by design — I consider most mainstream culture incredibly toxic — but it also means that I have a hard time connecting with people for whom this stuff is simply an everyday part of life. One mom was nattering on and on about her Samantha doll and when I said something like, “I had a Cabbage Patch Doll, too,” she looked at me like I’d grown a third eye.
I’m okay with that as a personal choice — I mean, this was a woman who didn’t even know there were different kinds of protein content in different kinds of flour, why do I care what she thinks? But I do worry about not being aware enough of the children’s culture to help guide my daughter through it. It’s a fucking mine field and I feel like I’m operating without a map. I need to know what to steer her away from.
Why, you ask, would I steer her away from books about spunky, strong-willed girls who live through important historical events? Well, because the books are just a gateway drug, apparently. The dolls are very expensive (~$100) and you need to buy the doll, her best friend, her pet, her clothes, her bed. I mean, there’s furniture! And apparently there are bistros and tea parties and special palaces where girls make pilgrimages to worship at the altar of their favorite little character.
I’m probably not being very clear. Let me see if I can rephrase — have you ever tried to tackle a subject you know nothing about, particularly one where there are no classes or guide books? Imagine trying to listen to jazz for the first time, to understand the history and meaning and pleasure and context of jazz, where you’ve never heard of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Now imagine that this is something your kid is going to spend the next fifteen years of her life wading through. And, of course, since it’s pop culture, knowing who Charlie Parker was won’t help you — you have to have an eye out for the next Charlie Parker.
It’s daunting. It’s terrifying. It makes me want to move to Finland.