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.