I've always been a bit squirmy about the high prices and accumulation of unnecessary objects propagated by the American Girl Doll Empire, those eerie, look-alike dolls coveted by every girl under the age of 9. The one saving grace for me was the history lesson-book that accompanies most of them. But I do think owner Mattel has pushed its AG branding gimmicks too far with its latest "limited edition" homeless doll.
The doll – née Gwen Thompson, school chum to this year's "Girl of the Year" Chrissa – came out months ago. But she's been getting a lot of attention lately because some adults finally read Gwen's story line and realized the $95 doll in the spotless white eyelet sundress with embroidered accents and matching sandals is living on the streets. Set in modern times, Gwen's bio reads like this: Her father ran out on the family. Her mother lost her job. Gwen and mum are now living in their car.
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People have been harping on the mixed message of a homeless doll priced so high that she's out of reach of most homeless (and other) girls. Some have complained that AG is sublimely teaching today's girls that dads are deadbeats who desert their families. Others don't like the unsettling image of rich, spoiled girls "playing homeless."
I do think Mattel would be wise to donate proceeds from Gwen sales to a nonprofit that helps homeless children, but my chief concern isn't the hypocrisy. It's the idea that we adults feel the need to create such a controlled prescription for play for our kids – and that we think it's necessary to inject that role-playing with a dose of harsh reality. What's screwed up about American Girl dolls is that they come with directions: This is who this doll is, this is how you should play with her. Don't bother using your imagination, we've done it all for you.
If AG and others worry that our girls today are too sheltered then why stop at homelessness? Why not have a whole reality line of dolls that today's girls can identify with? We could have Rape Victim Rachel, Missing Child Charisse, Anorexic Ashley, Heroin Hannah, No Health Insurance Britney, Autistic Alice, Incest Victim Mackenzie …
Remember when childhood was supposed to be carefree? When parents tried to protect their children from the nasty aspects of life for those few, fleeting years so kids could have the freedom to grow up without Planet Earth resting on their shoulders?
What's wrong with letting kids indulge their imaginations in a fantasy world where life is peachy keen and ends happily ever after? My 9-year-old daughter has created a lovely world for her dolls. In general, life is bubbly and good here. Four years ago, after Hurricane Wilma hit, I did come across her shaking her dollhouse with her hands, yelling at the dolls inside, "Get out, get out, a hurricane is coming!" Occasionally, I hear the dolls having arguments. And a few unfortunate Barbies are missing limbs. But I'm pretty sure those mishaps are the results of accidents and that a doll serial killer is not on the loose, terrorizing my daughter's bedroom and imagination.
I agree that children should not be entirely sheltered from every flaw and hardship in life. They need to eventually learn that other humans are starving, homeless, hurt and scared. But these are lessons that can be taught without forcing kids to turn playtime into the evening news. Our kids are exposed to enough reality in their everyday existence; as parents, our job is to protect them as much as possible from life's evil, help them filter it, understand it.
Above all, our role as parents should be to let our kids be kids. In the 1997 Italian movie Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni plays a Jewish father who invents a game to help his son feel less afraid in the Nazi death camp where they are imprisoned. He tells his young son they are playing a survival type of game to win a real tank, that each "challenge" that happens is just a competition to earn more points. He perpetuates this playful thinking, even as he marches off to his death. It's portrayed as the ultimate act of love – a father wanting to protect his son from the atrocities of life.
We don't need to sell dolls that are homeless to remind our kids that the world can be a scary place. They learn that on their own.
After a shooting happened on my street two years ago, I went to tuck my then-7-year-old into bed. I found her wedged between a stack of pillows.
"If a bad person looks in the window, maybe they won't see me in here and try to hurt me," she told me.
A piece of my daughter's childhood (and my heart) was chipped away that night. If she wants to play with her dolls in an imaginary world where nobody gets shot, that's totally cool with me.