In defense of American Girl (especially Gwen)

Have you heard about the new American Girl doll Gwen? You might have read about it in the New York Post where Andrea Peyser commented on the matter with equal parts information and vitriol.

Gwen is homeless. Peyser tries to comment on the implications of selling a homeless doll for $95 but instead just spends a lot of time talking about her intense dislike of American Girl in general.

I’m really angry about the whole thing.

First and foremost: I know that American Girl dolls are expensive. I was very lucky to receive Molly for Christmas when I was a child. She is still a cherished doll. And I loved her. I also loved all of the books. Say what you will, but American Girl books are excellent historical fiction. Some of the situations are not realistic. But the books set the scene for each time period. They introduce girls to history in a fun way. I used to love Ann Rinaldi and I’d say the American Girl stories work perfectly well as historical fiction for a younger reader.

Second: I think it’s obscene to describe American Girl as a cult of indoctrination. Heaven forbid girls have diverse dolls that can look like them! Even I was annoyed when the 1970s doll, Julie, was Caucasian with her friend Ivy being Chinese–especially in San Francisco. But let’s review: American Girl has dolls who are Spanish, Native American, Black, Chinese, Jewish, and Dutch. There are dolls who have experienced immigration, war, revolution, slavery, the Depression. Characters who have overcome discrimination and hardship. Do you see a bad message yet? I don’t. Those are just the historical dolls.

There are also modern dolls marketed as being “just like you.” And yeah, there might not be homeless girls who will be getting any Christmas gifts let alone an American Girl doll. And maybe there shouldn’t be such a thing as a homeless doll. But there should be books. Because children live in all kinds of situations.

Third: Peyser constantly notes that children treat the American Girl dolls as if they are human. Isn’t that kind of the point of having a doll? Isn’t that the point of toys? Of pretending?

Later on Peyser writes: “For starters, men are bad. Fathers abandon women without cause. She’s also telling me that women are helpless. And that children in this great country, where dolls sell for nearly 100 bucks a pop, are allowed to sleep in motor vehicles. But mothers don’t lose custody over this injustice. Because, you see, they are victims, too.”

I don’t know the full story (and notice there isn’t a book about Gwen specifically so I imagine Peyser doesn’t know it either), so I can’t say for sure, but is there anything that would justify a father abandoning his family? Would it be acceptable if Gwen’s mother burned dinner too many times? How about if she forgot to buy milk? Are those acceptable causes?

As to women being helpless? Again, I don’t know the story, but what if Gwen’s mom was a housewife with no marketable skills? What was she supposed to do? I don’t know about Peyser’s experience but I don’t think it’s magically possible to acquire job experience.

Finally, let’s think about what would happen if, as Peyser suggested, Gwen’s mother lost custody because of this: Gwen would be alone, probably in a group or foster home. She might get lost in the system. She might never see her mother again. She would probably be even more traumatized. Maybe even abused. Yes, an ideal solution for a child. And, of course, this would all be the mother’s fault. She wouldn’t be a victim at all. Because she wanted to wind up homeless and living out of a car. That was her master plan. Gee, I wish I had thought of it myself.

Peyser also kept mentioning girls as young as four pestering their parents to “collect them all.” That is not a cause. It’s an effect. American Girl isn’t making children spoiled and it doesn’t make them want dolls young. Gwen is a strange anomaly in the world of consumerism and dolls. But that doesn’t mean everything they do is wrong. It doesn’t mean we don’t need American Girl dolls to show that there are many different kinds of Americans. It certainly doesn’t mean that a doll can’t be special and that stores can’t be a fun experience for children.

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