Friday, September 25, 2009

Mattel Fails With New American Girl 'Homeless' Doll

Mattel, that adorable toy company that brought us the Barbie Doll, has just released a horrendous addition to their "American Girls" lineup. Introducing little "Gwen," the homeless American Girl.

Already this new addition is making waves. Andrea Peyser, writer for the New York Post, had this to say (emphasis mine):
And while you were snoozing, the creators of American Girl, which is sold by Mattel, got bold. They engaged in all-out political indoctrination.

Snuck into the collection is a doll that comes with a biography that is weird and potentially offensive enough to keep Mom running to the Maalox. Gwen, you see, is harboring a terrible secret.

She is homeless. A homeless doll.

In the history books that come with every American Girl doll -- bringing to life these little monsters until impressionable little ones believe they are actual people -- you learn that Gwen's father walked out on the family. Her mother lost her job.

As the little kiddies learn to read about this doll as if she's a human being, one learns that, as fall turned into winter, Gwen's mom lost her grip.

Mother and daughter started bedding down in a car.

For $95 -- more than your average homeless person would dream of spending on a rather mediocre baby substitute -- Gwen Thompson can be yours. A mixed message if ever there was one.

Full Article

Mixed message, indeed. I just found out yesterday about this new addition to the popular "American Girls" doll collection. And I was stunned. What were they thinking? I remember when I first learned about the "American Dolls" years ago, and thought it was a wonderful idea. The company created a doll during important times in our country's history. First, there was a Swedish immigrant doll, one of the first introduced, in 1986. The doll, Kirsten Larson, described life in the United States during the mid-1800's. The dolls have their own stories reflecting what life was like during that time period. (And of course there are the expensive accessories that accompany each doll and its historical time frame.) The historical periods covered are The American Civil War, Edwardian (or Victorian), The Great Depression, and World War II.

All sounding fine and dandy, so far. But then Mattel had to start going political. Pleasant Rowland, who created the company in 1986, sold it to Mattel in 1998. It was after 1998 that we started to get the "politically-correct" dolls such as a Native American doll who lived before the white settlers arrived and a Mexican doll who lived in New Mexico before it was surrendered to the United States during the Mexican-American War in 1848. (Which wasn't United States "American" since the doll's characters either lived before our country was born or was part of another country before being joined to the United States.)

Then of course, there was the 60's and 70's era, which produced "Julie," who lived in San Francisco during 1974. Her story focuses on cheerful societal changes like divorce, gender equality in sports (Yes, really.), America's Bicentennial Celebration (nice they noticed), environmentalism, the disability rights movement, and feminism. Change your world, Julie!

Evidently, reflecting on our nation's history wasn't enough for Mattel. They turned their dolls into mini-activists, promoting "causes." And now we have The Homeless One.

After a lineage of dolls that represented young girls rising to the challenges of their own place in history, how does it make sense to introduce a doll that is victimized? How is such a story encouraging to a little girl? And the irony of charging $95 for a "homeless" doll (without accessories!) seems to be lost on Mattel.

Women have come a long way throughout history. I had hoped that even a toy company could accurately represent the growth and opportunities that have been afforded women over the last 200+ years. What angers me about this new offering is that it is not supportive, positive, or encouraging. A young girl, once she learns the story, will most likely feel fearful and insecure. Is that what we want for our little girls?

And that doesn't even cover the father aspect of this sad tale. According to "Gwen's" story, her father abandoned her and her mother. Big, bad men! Selfish! Immature! Mean! Oh, yes. That's the attitude I'd love to encourage in my little girl. Not.

And then there is the mother, who obviously has been destroyed by the situation. Of course, this is reality for many women, but do we really want to bring such harsh realities to an 8 year-old? Do we not try to protect our children from the injustices of the world until they're old enough to understand there are many complications to life?

It galls me that instead of focusing on a woman's resourcefulness and "toughness" (as shown by the earlier dolls), we have "The Victimized Woman," who can't seem to pull it together for her daughter. She goes to "Sunrise House," which helps the homeless, and says, "Without Sunrise House, I don't know where we'd be today." Hmmm. Wonder where Sunrise House gets its money? I can't find the info but if that's not a set-up for the Big, Loving Government to take care of us all, I don't know what is.

Bottom line: I think Mattel did a horrendous job of research and development for this concept. I think it's a bad idea all around, the worst I've seen yet for a toy. The American Girls doll collection started out so well, and was an admirable project to help young girls understand the history of our country. But they've gone off the rails on this one. They should be ashamed of themselves, for turning what is a very real and tragic problem, into a commodity.

If you're upset about it, I highly recommend going on Twitter and tweeting the heck out of it. Astonishingly, they only have two Twitter accounts: @MattelRecruiter and @mattelmba. I say "astonishing" because any major Fortune 100 company that doesn't have a presence on Twitter is ignorant of social media's effect for a brand. Nevertheless, let them know if you think it's a bad idea. I'm sure if this topic started to trend on Twitter's list, someone (I hope) will notice.


Rachel said...

I used to see cute nine-year-old girls walking around carrying their American Girl dolls, and they'd be wearing the same dress as their doll. You can by the doll clothes in real-girl sizes, a great marketing idea. So my question is: will anybody be dressing up like the homeless doll?

Elizabeth said...

As far as I know, Felicity (the American Revolution era doll is not
"discontinued". Last year they "archived" Samantha (19040 I think they do that to create a certain "demand" (like Disney used to do with their movies), and this year introduced Rebecca- a Russian Jewish imigrant from the early 20th century. The new doll is probably (I haven't looked into it) one of the "dolls of the year" which means she will only be available for one year and then retired. I loved all of the originals and the Native American and Hispanic dolls stories are also very nice (Josephina's family is Catholic and has a "home altar" as part of her available accessories). My daughters are not allowed to read the Julie stories...Funny, I was 10 years old in 1974 and my mom was definitly not cool with me wearing "hippie" garb and sleeping in a beaded canopy bed!
I guess that is why they have her living in San Francisco. (Poor St Francis must be rolling over in His grave at what passes for normal in "his" city). Anyway, I think a good outcry on this new "political posturing doll" is a good idea. We'll see how many of these sell... gosh, what kind of "accessories" did they think they could market with a homeless doll, anyway?

Mary Rose said...

Elizabeth, I removed that part about Felicity. I misread something while I was looking up the dolls. Great point about the accessories! All I could think about, though, was how depressing her story is.

Rachel - oh my gosh! Wouldn't that be something? Geesh... (!)

Unknown said...

Hi, I stumbled on your blog a while back and have been lurking in silence. I'm a cradle Catholic.

I'm on the fence with this, but have heard the buzz all day. There was even mention of this on NPR. I also do not have girls young enough any longer to play with these dolls or read the story books. Mine did back in the late 80s and early 90s. Here is why I am on the fence with this: I think the activist nature of this doll marketing is appalling. Yet, this is the reality for some children in our society. Some fathers do leave their families, and some families do have mental illness in them. Children can't be brought up blind to these facts and without having read the accompanying story, I can't judge as to whether it is truly promoting divorce and denying the issues surrounding mental illness. For all I know, these may be simple background facts to the story. But a toy, a doll marketed in this manner is wrong. I think the story in which they are marketing this doll is such that she overcomes bullying and that is the "lesson" with this doll. Each doll's story was part of the marketing ploy, and each story was designed for girls to see how each of the fictional girls overcomes some adversity in their lives. Yet, like you, I'm wondering what is Mattel thinking with this mixed message. Heck, I'm old enough to have grandchildren and not willing to plunk down $100 (with tax) for a doll, especially one with an activist angle and there are no profits being donated to a homeless shelter or to a girls' cause. I also feel your leap in logic with Sunshine House and Big, Loving Government is well...a bit weak. Many homeless shelters do receive government grant money but that is not nearly all of their funding nor are most homeless on welfare or some type of subsidy. Many are there because of an internal struggle between having to accept some type of help and losing a job, a home, income. Maybe too this is too big of an issue to deal with through a doll, and if I were homeless...I definitely would feel this as a smack in the face.