1. News & Issues
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Was it Wrong for American Girl to Introduce Gwen the Homeless Doll?

By September 24, 2009

Follow me on:

The New York Post is aghast that Mattel is releasing an American Girl doll named Gwen who is homeless. Writing for the Post, Andrea Peyser calls this action "all-out political indoctrination." As she sees it, Gwen is:

...a doll that comes with a biography that is weird and potentially offensive....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...you learn that Gwen's father walked out on the family. Her mother lost her job....[A]s 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.

Although I don't agree with Peyser overall,  she's right about the mixed messages inherent in selling a homeless doll. The $95 price tag  is a slap in the face to a homeless family unable to afford three meals a day.

Opening Up a Dialogue, or Slapping On a Band-Aid?

How does a toy manufacturer reconcile the excesses of privilege with the unmet basic needs caused by deprivation? By creating a character who faces these challenges and by manufacturing a doll in her likeness, is Mattel opening up a important dialogue? Or slapping a Barbie Band Aid on a social issue that's been prettified and commodified?

Whether or not we want to introduce the topic of homelessness at the family dinner table, it's a fact of American life. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness:

Every year 600,000 families with 1.35 million children experience homelessness in the United States, making up about 50 percent of the homeless population over the course of the year.

Although it may seem unethical for Mattel to make money off this very real tragedy, it's important to consider the roots of the American Girl concept.

Bringing History to Life

The original dolls were manufactured by Pleasant Company, founded in 1986 by Pleasant T. Rowland, a teacher, educator, textbook writer and women's college graduate. She intended the American Girl dolls, books, clothing and accessories to make American history accessible to young girls, with each doll reflecting the concerns of her era -- the Civil War, the American Revolution, the Victorian era, and so on.  When American Girl was purchased by Mattel over a decade ago, the toy manufacturer for the most part carried on with this approach.

So when Peyser labels the introduction of Gwen "indoctrination," what makes this particular doll so threatening? She's not the first American Girl who's the product of hard economic times; Kit Kittredge, who lived during the Great Depression, not only has a whole line of books and accessories but was portrayed in the first American Girl doll movie by popular child actress Abigail Breslin.

Why is Kit okay, but Gwen taboo?

The Narrative of Today's American Family

Peyser doesn't like the fact that in Gwen's story the dad left and the mom lost her job. Welcome to the reality of the American family. Nearly 50% of marriages today end in divorce. Dads leave. Sometimes moms leave. Gwen's narrative reflects what's going on in the world of our children. It may make us feel uncomfortable, but ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

And the specter of middle class homelessness? Not so unlikely in many parts of the country. A year ago, CNN reported on the homeless women of Santa Barbara, many of whom had lost their jobs and couldn't afford housing in one of the priciest communities in the U.S. They were living out of their cars in a parking lot the city had set aside for homeless women in order to keep them relatively safe.

These are true stories in a nation grappling with recession. Even if we don't talk about what's going on with our children, they feel the effects when classmates and friends experience changes at home due to the job loss of one or both parents, or the stress of separation and divorce. They pick up subtle cues when something's wrong. A doll like Gwen enables them to express their anxieties and ask questions. She may not have been designed as a therapy doll, but to some extent she can function as one.

Compassion and Social Justice

So why call it "indoctrination" when a company introduces a social issue into the world of make-believe? Even if the recession isn't a personal issue, is it wrong if Mattel provides parents an outlet to introduce a discussion of rich and poor families, and bring compassion and social justice into the playroom ?

What's wrong with a child exploring the border of pretend and reality? And what's wrong with a parent using this doll as a teachable moment?

Before we get all worked up about a homeless doll, keep in mind that what we're talking about is a toy. Nothing more and nothing less. This is not a mandated item in a school curriculum but a consumer product that parents can either purchase or ignore.

Sales Will Tell if Mattel Did Right or Wrong

Let the marketplace determine Gwen's suitability in the $78 billion global toy market. If the concept of Gwen the homeless doll is as distasteful and wrong as Peyser indicates it is -- and poor sales verify her opinion --  then Mattel will find that its latest product is homeless in more ways than one. Don't kick her to the curb before giving her a chance.


September 25, 2009 at 1:26 am
(1) Tanja Cilia says:

The doll is not exactly cheap, is it – so how much of the selling price will be donated to the shelters for the homeless, or to the food kitchens?

September 25, 2009 at 5:09 am
(2) G.I.Joe says:

All dolls are homeless until a little girl or boy takes them home.

September 25, 2009 at 8:05 am
(3) Nana Jac says:

Don’t buy the doll!Donate the whole price to your local homeless shelter.

September 25, 2009 at 9:02 am
(4) dask says:

Waaaah? is there nothing we as a society wont cry about? Okay.. its a homeless girl doll. Woopty doo? Boys have VIOLENT dolls with weapons. Surely that is worse right? Boys play with toy guns. Society ignores that and moans about a white girl being portrayed as homeless instead of the standard “malibu barbie”.
Why does every doll in society have to be a skinny blue eyed blonde who lives i beverly hills ?
Waaa? its expensive? Because its a homeless girl… the doll should be cheap as if to reflect her worth in society?

Donate to the poor and homeless? I dont know where the dolls are made…but if they are made in china like most dolls… the money is being used to feed the poor and struggling.. in china. I have no problem with that.

September 25, 2009 at 9:30 am
(5) think4yourself1 says:

I’d bet $1 that these dolls are made in China – which is about how much they cost to make them there. But hey – at least its creating a job for a chinese citizen! sheesh … how many meals would $95 buy at one of your city’s homeless shelters. In this economy, I’m sure they’d appreciate every dollar. Cannot believe none of the proceeds are donated. $0.

September 25, 2009 at 9:58 am
(6) dask says:

Now that I look at the doll, She doesnt even LOOK homeless. Her clothes are a little too spiffy and without holes and tatters (at least in the picture I saw). I’m offended that this “homeless doll” plays with my intelligence. She looks too clean and her hair too kempt to be HOMELESS DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION.

This is what homeless during the great depression looked like (scroll down to florence and her kids):

I have no problem with a homeless doll But come on.. she should look homeless not like malibu barbie’s daughter.

The lesson girls should learn from this doll is:
MARRY RICH GUY. o’kuy? If you marry a poor guy and work a mediocre middle income job.. and then find yourself unable to pay bills due to being fired or laid off and become homeless, part of the reason you are homeless is because you didnt choose your mate properly. Waa? the strongest most independent women in our society are NOT women who work middle class jobs. Its women who marry rich. THEY are the ones living the life. Paradox.

By the way, I dont think merely creating a homeless doll mean you should donate to the homeless. Where is that written?? The people who should donate to the homeless are the people who think mattel should donate to the homeless.

September 25, 2009 at 9:59 am
(7) whiteknyght says:

coming next Trixie… the teenage streetwalker doll… messed up by her stepfather and turned out by her alcoholic mother, Trixie tries to find her way on the hard avenue of the modern American dream.

September 25, 2009 at 11:14 am
(8) AG fan says:

If you critize Gwen, it’s clear you don’t know the essence of the American Girl dolls. All of them have a different story and background, that’s what gives them “personality”.
So you cannot get a $95 doll? How about a lot of *smaller* *anorexic* Barbie dolls… ? Would you get those because they’re not “homeless” and rather have airplanes, boats, cars, houses, boyfriends, etc etc etc?
Or would you rather buy a video game that depicts wars, fights, violence?
Gwen is a CLEAN homeless girl. Being homeless doesn’t mean you have to be ragged and dirty. Read the book to know more about her. Should she cost less because of her economic status then??? (duuuuuhhh)
There are toys and dolls for everybody’s taste. That said.

September 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm
(9) Anne says:

Dask – Gwen is not homeless during the great depression. She is a modern doll, from today’s times.
Also, about no $ being donated from the sales of the doll – Gwen is not a main doll. She is Chrissa’s friend – the main story of these dolls is not about temporary homelessness, but about bullying and true friendship.
Gwen actually spins a very positive story – she and her mother are able to get help, get back on their feet, etc.
I enjoyed this article. Very well thought out and said.

September 25, 2009 at 2:52 pm
(10) Sharon McEachern says:

I am amazed that people are still buying Mattel toys. Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker, along with its subsidiary Fischer-Price, are responsible for huge toy recalls because of lead-tainted and lead-painted toys. Two years ago more than 2 million Mattel toys were recalled. After this unprecedented number of toy recalls in the U.S. — most from Mattel –Congress passed legislation last year setting strict mandates on lead, lead paint and phthalate levels. The law requires third-party, independent testing of all products for children 12 years old and younger.

But surprise! The federal regulator, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, SECRETLY EXEMPTED MATTEL. It was Mattel’s toys which prompted the legislation in the first place; yet,the giant toymaker got an “OUT.” Mattel does not want independent safety testing of their toys, they’re going to just test their own. Read more about Mattel at:


September 25, 2009 at 4:06 pm
(11) KEl says:

I love dolls – I sell and collect them. I also donate a portion of the sales of my repaints to Compassion International for children. I do not say this to brag but rather to say that I think Mattel is absolutely DISGUSTING to do this. This is 100 percent profit off the plight of the homeless. And the reviews on American Girl.com are also distressing “Such a pretty doll- my child just HAD to have her!” Is everyone so completely clueless? How can they teach children social responsibilty and not donate ONE CENT from this doll to a homeless charity?? It really shows Mattel’s true colors!

September 26, 2009 at 8:57 am
(12) brondy says:

I’m okay with capitalism, but for Mattel to pretend it creates its plastic toys with anything other than profit as the number one aim is hypocrisy. There are too many high quality toys from small companies for us to train our children to become sheep. I don’t object to a homeless doll per se, but our daughters shouldn’t need a $95 piece of plastic to educate them about this issue. And by the way, will this girl be invited to the tea parties? What on earth would she wear?

September 27, 2009 at 3:27 pm
(13) Paul Elam says:

Just what young women whose parents can afford a $95.00 doll need, a dead beat dad daughter doll.

What’s next? Molested Molly?

How about Penelope Pawn, whose mother filed a no fault divorce, undermined Penelope’s relationship with her loving father which resulted in poor Penelope on drugs and pregnant at 13?

Somehow I don’t think that one will make it into the line up. Gee, wonder why?

September 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm
(14) tonysprout says:

Perhaps the next doll could be a mommy that decides she doesn’t want to be married anymore. While daddy doll is busting his hump at work, mommy raids the bank account, closes the credit cards, goes to the judge to get a restraining order on the basis that she’s afriad of him,goes home to move new daddy in, and waits for the cops to show and present him with the ticket to his new life. Perhaps Gwen will share her cardboard box with him.

September 27, 2009 at 7:56 pm
(15) julie says:

I too think this is disgusting.

I don’t think Daddy can get too far without having to pay child support. Maybe they should say “Daddy lost his job and is in jail for not having enough money to pay child support” and “Mummy lost her job”.

September 28, 2009 at 8:59 am
(16) Shattered Men says:

“you learn that Gwen’s father walked out on the family.”

Most have been kicked out of their homes.

Only 11% of mothers value their husband’s input when it comes to handling problems with their kids. Teachers & doctors rated 45%, and close friends & relatives rated 16%

77% of non-custodial fathers are NOT able to “visit” their children, as ordered by the court, as a result of “visitation interference” perpetuated by the custodial parent. In other words, non-compliance with court ordered visitation is three times the problem of non-compliance with court ordered child support and impacts the children of divorce even more

In recent years, we have seen many women plan on being a single mom and they are applauded for this. We even had a single mother give birth to eight infants and no one seems to care that there will be no father in their lives.

We also see many sources that even question if fathers are actually needed (other then for being a wallet)

American Girl must also be unaware of events that have been going on for well over a year….the economy. Far more men are losing jobs then are women and in reality, women have gained some jobs.

Bottom line is that few fathers “run out” on their children and the so called “dead beats”are actually “dead broke”

September 30, 2009 at 10:58 am
(17) mercike says:

As every animal with some intelligent mind, our child’s playing is a practice to adult life. So is this mean that we are training our young to be homeless? Hm….. To be aware of homelessness around a globe should be a better way. Maybe a doll who’s life ambition is to HELP homelessness?

September 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm
(18) Di says:

WOW!anyone else notice that the majority of the protests are comeing from the Male side?Come on folks its just a doll.What about Barby?No natural woman can fit those dimensions and what does she teach?I like what one commentor said,’let the sales of the doll be the decideing factor on whether or not the doll will be popular’.You don’t have to buy the doll.Meethinks you protest too much.

September 30, 2009 at 1:31 pm
(19) SLB says:

Not just $95 for the doll, but there’s another $20 for the accessories to ‘fix her hair’ (http://www.current-movie-reviews.com/off-beat/2009/09/25/mattel-issues-latest-american-girl-series-homeless-doll/).

I’m not sure about the reviewer who said that Gwen is a “clean” homeless girl. With a flowery white dress, a pink sash, and hair accessories. She doesn’t look like the picture of very real suffering that I see in my town.

October 14, 2009 at 9:24 am
(20) Dee says:

Why all the fear about this doll?
The so called homeless doll is just another part of American history. Who knows her story may inspire a young mind to desire being a part of helping those who has gone through such depressing conditions.
I think this doll reaches deep into the soul of a child to pull up something that could bring change to so many.

Who would know?

October 25, 2009 at 9:42 pm
(21) Cheyenne says:

O come on are you kidding me.If anyone has watched the movie in the end Gwen mother found a job and they got an apartment.Even if they didn’t who cares.What is so wrong with showing a little homeless girl?Afraid your kids might learn the truth about the world.Believe it or not their homeless children in American.In fact now days not many people far from it.Yes even those well to do could easily lose their jobs tomorrow.So why the big deal with the doll being homeless?Have any of you even watched the movie and the point.To help kids learn to expect others.I think everyone who is bad mouthing this doll should spend some time working in a shelter.Maybe they would learn a few things.And take your kids with you.You will see moms,dads and yes children.Maybe some little girl out their is feeling like someone understands her by watching the movie.Maybe a little girl who is living in a shelter and knows what is like to go to school with people just like you who are bad mouthing this doll.

October 26, 2009 at 10:40 am
(22) savannah says:

You all took the time to watch this movie and don’t see the really point.Its to teach your kids a value lesson.Treat others as you wanna be treated.I can see alot of adult’s haven’t learned that lesson to pass on how sad.Maybe a few of you all should walk into a shelter and hand out gifts.Look the children and the parents in the eye and you will see alot of them are good hard working people who had a bad break in life.Then go home and teach your kids what the movie is trying to teach them that is ok make friends with someone who has less then them and to treat them the same as everyone else

January 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm
(23) a says:


February 28, 2010 at 12:17 am
(24) Just a mom says:

So there. I am divorced. My daughter’s father left me and is not paying child support. More to that, he left all the family credit cards that were open on my name, to me, and the rather expensive house – all the financial trouble to struggle with while he moved on.
Now I – thankfully – have a job and paying off all those debts slowly trying to get back on my feet. If I lose it, I’ll lose it all. But our clothes are rather nice – leftovers from previous life. And we are clean. And we have fun together. And it’s been really hard to explain to my 6 year old that, well, I can’t get her toys every week like I used to, or that we can’t go get our nails done or can’t go to the restaurants because we don’t have money to do it like we did before.
She’s been crying over Hannah Montana because Hannah has better life than her, better clothes, and she has money. And in a fairly nice town we live in, there are no other kids around my daughter whose parents would be divorced too or who would have known financial trouble (it’s not like we are showing ours too).
Now she got Gwen as a gift. And we both love it. Because it’s real. And those who criticize her or say that donation would have been better, know nothing about life, sorry. It’s very easy to have an opinion about something you have never experienced.

May 15, 2010 at 11:52 pm
(25) Randi says:

I think it shuld be made known that Gwen is part of the once a year “girl of the yYear” collection in which girls all over the country can send in video’s information about themselves in hopes that they are chosen to be the girl of the year and then American Girl makes a doll after thme to be sold for the full year. Last year the girl of the year was “Chrissa” a story of a girl who was bullied at a new school she went to. One of the girls at the new school that did become a good friend to Chrissa was “Gwen” who is a real life girl who was actually homeless. The doll was made in her honor and the whole story of Chrissa was a very touching one. My daughter collects American Girl dollls and enjoys the stories. I think it was very nice of Mattel to maek\\ke a doll after this girl/ This is a true story about a girl who was homeless….U see nothing wrong with it.

July 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm
(26) em says:

fyi gwen is cool one of the best dolls there is nothing wrong with being homeless you have know right to pick on gwen think of you in her shoes

July 29, 2010 at 2:29 pm
(27) em says:

fyi im a kid and i have gwen and there is nothing wrong with her

November 6, 2010 at 7:53 pm
(28) Kari says:

Gwen is just as expensive as all the other dolls so whats the big deal???! I actually want to buy her even more now. she is a beautiful doll. she is not made for homeless people to buy her. I LOVE GWEN!!!! she was meant to teach kids that things like that do happen. I live in Thailand( i was born in America and I am a citizen) and there are homeless people every where. I really want her and she is retired. my family can’t find anything wrong with her.

November 21, 2010 at 8:38 pm
(29) ag fan #2 says:

There is nothing wrong with American Girl or Gwen. Dolls are NOT just a piece of plastic and that was a rude comment.So was that homeless people have to be dirty with holes in their clothes.Some people are decent and keep their kids clean…even if they’re homeless.Maybe some people should think before they speak,before somebody’s feelings get hurt or somebody gets offended…especially a homeless person.

November 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm
(30) emilie says:

i agree with every one who has said something GOOD about gwen and kari go to ebay to find one thanks every body

November 16, 2011 at 1:15 am
(31) Amanda says:

This is a lie! there is no homeless doll! I know American girl very well and this is completely wrong! She is just trying to prove a point that if you put something on the internet someone will beileve you!!!!!!!

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.