When I saw the Jezebel headline "The Newest American Girl Doll Has A Secret" I couldn't help but click through.
Gwen and her mother Janine fell on hard times when her father lost his job; they later lost the house as they were unable to keep up payments. Soon after, Gwen's father left them and they became homeless...
Job loss? Homeownership kaput? Sounds like what a sizeable chunk of America experienced this past year! Looks like American Girl is very up to date with contemporary issues that girls (and their parents) can relate to, or at least recognize (see also: Chrissa vs. the cyber-bullies!). Color me cynical, but I can't help but feel this is just a marketing strategy by the Mattel-owned company.
In their unending march towards every American girl owning an American Girl Doll that has hobbies, clothes, friends, not to mention precise physical features like their owner, I think they're hopping on the economic downturn bandwagon. Irony aside ($95 for the low-income Gwen and her book--Add Doll Hairbrush for $7) Gwen's story is timely enough that I can't help but think it's supposed to appeal to girls who might be feeling the recession at home.
I don't think I'm completely alone in my suspicions, both Anne Elizabeth Moore (who devoted a chapter to the AG Franchise in her excellent marketing and consumerism critique Unmarketable) and New York Times TV critic Anita Gates saw connections between the marketing of Molly McIntire, whose father is away at the WWII front, and a target audience of young girls whose own fathers may be serving in Iraq. One Wall Street Journal reader responded to a 2006 article about the AG Franchise "The Selling of Nicki: Overscheduled Skier With a Cute Dog" by Christina Binkley wrote
I pondered the article "The Selling of Nicki" (page one, Dec. 30), which highlighted the brainstorming and focus groups employed by the American Girl company to design and create the Girl of the Year series of dolls, and was left feeling initially uneasy. As the mother of two young girls, my husband and I have purchased many American Girl character dolls and Bitty Babies because they are high quality, have a historical component and support creative and imaginative play. Frankly, I never considered the calculated marketing tactics behind the expanding line of dolls.
Later, as I drove my daughter and her friend, both happily clutching their new matching Kaya dolls, I stopped to pick up the mail, handed the new American Girls catalog back to the girls and was stunned to hear them both parrot, almost verbatim, the comments of the focus groups regarding Nicki, the Girl of the Year. Juxtaposed against the article I'd read just hours earlier, I'm not certain whether to be impressed or terrified. Perhaps both would be wise.
And even though the New York Post's Andrea Preyser is a bit vitriolic on the new Gwen doll ("What message is being sent with Gwen? For starters, men are bad. Fathers abandon women without cause. She's also telling me that women are helpless."), she does tap into some of the very suspicious "cult-like" environment surrounding the AG franchise. ("I asked to see Gwen, and the saleswoman persisted in referring to the inanimate object as 'she'.") The American Girl Doll Stores littered over America feature restaurants, hair salons, and movie theaters for girls to visit with their dolls, all in addition to abundance of accessories you can buy for your doll. (Personal to Preyser: your hollow threat to support Barbie over the pinko Gwen Thompson--"I'll stick with the thin girl. She never attempted to politically indoctrinate me"--rings hollow since both are owned by Mattel).
I don't want to paint American Girls completely as an evil corporation (though they did pull in $463 million last year). I read and owned the books (which Moore calls "gateway purchases to the engaging, miniature world inhabited by the dolls"), and felt kindred spirits with the blond-haired Scandinavian prairie-settler Kirsten (Hey, that's like my name! Hey, that's like my hair color! Hey, that's a very general and idealized American past I can get behind as a kindergartner!). Pricetag aside, they're a much more wholesome (and educational you could argue) alternative to Barbie and Bratz. Rebecca Rubin, the newest historical American Girl Doll and its second Jewish character seems to be well-received for the most part.
But Gwen's introduction brings up other points. Chrissa is the first "Girl of the Year" to have companion friends (AG nomenclature lesson: "They are also not referred to as best friends but simply Chrissa's friends. This could be due to the fact that Chrissa has two companions and both feature with equal prominence in her books.") Does the fact that homeless-shelter Gwen and "at least part South Asian" Sonali are sidekicks rather than Girl-of-the-Year themselves contribute to the other-ing and tokenizing of disenfranchised or non-white young girls? Or is it good that they're getting the American Girl Doll treatment at all?
Can't we just be friends? Chrissa can only come with one friend at a time!
Maybe after reading through the books, watching the movie, and anticipating 2010's Girl of the Year, I'll have some answers.