An Online University For The American-Girl Doll Empire

We can't help it: our fascination with the ever-growing American Girl empire continues into adulthood. And when we heard they were colonizing the 'net with something called InnerStar University, we had to take a tour.

Here's the bad news: in order to create the just-like-you avatar and enroll, you need to own a doll. So unless you're shelling out for that — or have otherwise paid entry that gives you a code — this magical universe will be all but fobidden you. Of course, you can take a tour.

We are asked to choose an avatar: Black, Asian, olive-complected, or blond and blue-eyed. We forge ahead with our tour of the campus — in which, as a video tells you, guides will lead you through games and challenges designed to school you in qualities like confidence, strength and, um, style. I attempted to take my avatar to the Blue Sky Nature Center, the Grand Sports Center and the Real Spirit Center, but although we were allowed to walk to the door, entry was denied us. While we were able to enter Shopping Square, we couldn't actually go into the "Real Beauty Salon," "Glittering Gowns" or the "Bravo Boutique."

And herein lies the issue with American Girl. In a lot of ways, I continue to think it's fine: I'm glad they've retained some of the historical element, whose books I learned a lot from, and their inclusivity is great. The virtues they espouse — kindness, confidence, activity — are certainly wholesome, and the actual clothes the empire sells are age-appropriate. But at the end of the day, it's hard to take some of the good messages away when it all depends on buying the product, and when even a "University" involves a shopping center where you can buy still more products. That's insidious, and disingenuous, too. Having a doll and an avatar that look like you may be fun, but if that little you measures her progress in virtual outfits, it's hard to know who's reflecting what.

But maybe I'm just bitter I never got one.