Drama Doll

If you’re a female under the age of about thirty-five, you probably know about American Girl dolls; they each come with their own historical setting, a six-book series, multiple outfits and accessories, and the sound of about fifty million small and not-so-small girls pleading with their parents to buy them one. I was one of them, once; my mother, who was extremely pleased to see a doll with brown hair and eyes, had planned to surprise me with Samantha for Christmas, but I found the catalogue and, steeped to the brim with Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, begged for Kirsten because she was a pioneer and wore a sunbonnet. I got her that Christmas, twenty-one years ago, and still have her, along with quite a few accessory sets – bought one at a time, twice a year (birthday and Christmas). She was by far the longest-lasting and best toy I can remember having.

Mattel bought out the company about ten years ago and in addition to expanding their stable of dolls they now have modern dolls and “best friend” dolls, some of them being pushed harder than others (poor Kirsten – since her best friend Marta dies of cholera in Book 1, I don’t think she’ll be getting a shroud-wrapped companion doll any time soon). I hadn’t thought much about them for a while, but that all changed last February when, two months to the day after my daughter was born, one of their catalogues arrived in the mail. Coincidence? I like to think so. Anyway, a quick review brought me up to date – the “Girl of the Year” was named Chrissa (um … OK) and had two friend dolls named Gwen and Sonali. All of them, of course, retailing for $95 apiece. I got another catalogue a few weeks ago, which introduced their new WWI-era Jewish doll. So imagine my surprise, when noodling around on the Huffington Post instead of doing something more productive (like, say, bouncing a rubber ball off my living room for three hours) there was a piece describing the “controversial new homeless doll.” Another doll? What the hell?


Not so much, as it turned out. The “controversial new doll” was the Gwen friend doll, who has been on the market for about ten months and, contrary to the piece (and the New York Post column decrying the “political preaching” and “cult-like” atmosphere of the doll stores which seems to have prompted it) wasn’t marketed as a “homeless doll.” She turns up in the Chrissa series as a shy kid who gets picked on a lot (the series is about bullying) and who was briefly homeless with her mother (living in a car) after her father walked out on them. They moved to a shelter, then an apartment. The other kids find out, and make her life hell for a while until the requisite American Girl happy ending. (Not that factual accuracy seems to be Andrea Peyser’s strong suit – her reference to a “Roaring ’20s” doll interested me, since there’s never been one to my knowledge. She’d probably have great clothes, though! Ahem, back to the original subject).

The comments on Peyser’s NY Post article are largely critical, but the HuffPo comments are largely as outraged as the columnist’s; there’s anger at a “homeless doll” being sold for the “ridiculous” price of $95 – apparently only “rich, spoiled brats” have these dolls, which would have come as news to me – apparently sharing bedrooms and not having a car because your parents can’t afford it makes you as rich as Samantha Parkington (Oops! Another cult reference!) There’s anger because the doll costs as much as all the other dolls, because she’s “too white” (seriously) and thus not typical of the homeless population. (I guess using stereotypes would have been a much better approach). Anger because she isn’t less expensive, or because the profits aren’t going directly to homeless advocacy or shelters. Anger because people are spending $95 on -gasp – a toy and not giving that money to real homeless people! The “Homeless Doll” meme seems to have gone viral; it’s turned up on ParentDish – with most of the commenters as PO’d as HuffPo’s – and turned up on CBS. If you want more examples, Google is your friend. I’ll warn you, it gets repetitive after a while.

Aside from the depressing sight of thousands of people latching onto the “Cynical marketing of a homeless doll! Outrage!” meme without bothering to do five minutes of research, I have to ask: In what way is the Evil Giant Company Mattel obliged to behave? Whatever Andrea Peyser says, they didn’t market the doll as “homeless” – I didn’t know the backstory until I flipped through the books. If they had, obviously, people would have thought they were doing an exploitative story, as the comments make clear. Should they have earmarked some of the profits from the doll for shelters? It would have been nice, I guess, but since her temporary homelessness isn’t treated by them as her sole defining characteristic I really can’t see why it’s some sort of moral imperative that this doll’s profits be donated but say, Julie The Child Of Divorce Doll’s profits not be donated to promoting divorce reform law or Kit The Impoverished Depression-Era Doll’s profits not be donated to food drives. Should the “homeless doll” not be so expensive? Her price is exactly the same as that of all the other dolls. Do people really want to go down the path where the less “wealthy” dolls are cheaper? I mean, really? For all the talking about “sending messages”, that’s one that comes across as a tad … ambiguous. (And while the dolls are certainly pricy, a lot of people get Wiis for Christmas. Just saying. Also, if you think that that’s as expensive as dolls can get, you are in for the shock of your life one of these days).

As for donating money to a charity; it’s a good thing to do, and imperative on all of us to help in whatever way we reasonably can. But donating to a charity and buying a toy are two different things. Sure, take your kid down to the soup kitchen and have them help out; it’s good for them to learn to help. But to say that this should be done instead of buying them specific toys is missing the point. There’s a time to serve, and there’s also a time to play. Take your daughter to help with the church sandwich program. Then, for Christmas, if you can afford it and she really wants it, give her a toy or a doll. Years from now, she’ll thank you for both experiences.

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5 Responses to Drama Doll

  1. TheGnat says:

    I haven’t got anything of substance to add, since your final paragraph is right on target.

    I did want to mention that even when I was a kid, and we definitely couldn’t afford one of those dolls, my parents agreed it would be worth the price. They are good quality, and come with quite a few things besides the doll and her base outfit. I was never jealous of the one girl I knew who had one, since she shared and honestly, they didn’t exactly have an “ex-expatriated French-Canadian who rather resents not being in the North” doll….

  2. Sonetka says:

    Thank you! I hope I wasn’t popping off too much, but I just found the “this could have been sold for much and the money given to homeless shelters” attitude to be frustrating and beside the point. People who are shopping for a child’s birthday or Christmas present aren’t going to turn around and spend the money earmarked for that on a homeless shelter instead unless they have one extremely self-sacrificing child! And some people were saying that if a child really wants that doll, she’d learn a lot more by being given the money and taken to a real soup kitchen to donate it instead. There’s a great lesson – you can’t have toys because they’re an insufficiently noble cause on which to spend money. I can’t see that sort of practice making a child particularly charitable – more like resentful, because her own wants (not needs, albeit, but these sorts of things can be a big deal for small children) are deemed insufficiently noble and ignored.

  3. guyintheblackhat says:

    The conflation of “serving” and “playing” is simply a symptom of advertising playing the role of the Lacanian master signifier – basically, the “boss” signifier that orders all the other symbols around for its own benefit. If the American girl doll can offer a twofer in the form of charity and playtime, then they can also offer twofers in any number of “reasonable” combinations: style and comfort, saving money and saving the Earth, your inner quirkiness and a having a clean-shaven face, orgasmic pleasure and buying things. It’s about conditioning the consumers of the future to invest in causes through products. *waves his “I’m writing a dissertation on popular cinema” flag*

  4. Dana says:

    Rather off topic from the main point, but Kirsten’s companion doll (a convention invented long after her original introduction, of course) ended up being the Native American girl she befriended. If only they had thought of the marketing potential, they might not have killed off Marta! That part was always the hardest part of the books for me to read. Anyway, I noticed they’d done some spin-off books about the Native American girl (and all the other now official “companions”) the last time I looked at a catalog and thought it was interesting. I do wish I’d kept the books now, especially since they’ve phased out Samantha. I had the Kirsten and Felicity dolls, but I loved all the books.

  5. Sonetka says:

    I didn’t know that, and I checked the AG site to see if the companion doll was still there only to be greeted by the announcement of Kirsten’s imminent archiving! Damn it, Mattel! Is this a cynical marketing ploy or do I really have to go and get that furniture set I always loved and could never afford?

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