American Girl: Give Those Dolls Some Balls!

Standard

Let me start by inserting a spoiler alert. I’m no big fan of the multi-zillion dollar American Girl (AG) franchise.

“Why?” you ask, as you throw down exactly $173.00 plus shipping for a doll that looks like the tattletale who rats everyone out at school, forgettable plaid dress, pair of patent pleather saddle shoes, and an overpriced miniature Goldendoodle you can pick up at Target for $4.99?

Molly McIntire is sad yet cute.

Molly McIntire needs to tell her mom to stop shopping in the school uniform department. Image via Wikipedia.

That’s why. Well, that and a lack of compelling role models for my daughters.

My seven and nine year-old girls feel differently, however, thanks in no small part to the monthly catalogues that arrive in the mail with more regularity than my period. So in an effort to better understand their fascination, I conducted a non-scientific study of the American Girl world. Curious to see if I could find a doll to fit either of their dispositions, I trolled the website for hours in an attempt to identify a match (not the Bitty Babies though…those things freak me out).

This bitty baby is creepy. Image via strollerfreak.itgo.com

To be fair, I can see why my daughters, along with millions of other girls across the country, are attracted to American Girl dolls. They perfectly fit the profile of what our conventional “girl next door” culture defines as attractive, and are pretty and bright-eyed, with flawless skin and thick, glossy hair. The original dolls each tell a personal story, and their narrative is filled with positive traits including honesty, kindness, creativity, and optimism.

These are great qualities, but in the modern-day world my daughters are learning to maneuver, they aren’t enough.

AG’s first line of dolls is based on historical periods, and each comes with a background story attached. Take Addy Walker, a doll who’s “escaping slavery to find her father and brother.” I’m all for acknowledging the past, but slavery?  Couldn’t the executives at Mattel have come up with something a little more inspirational for a ten year-old African American, or any young girl for that matter, to embrace other than one of the most oppressive facets of American History? What about a doll made in the spirit of Rosa Parks or a mini-Coretta Scott King?

In the same vein, historical character Josefina is “from her family’s New Mexican rancho.” With a serape over her shoulders and a cross hanging from her neck, is she getting ready to make tortillas to stuff into a piñata for a neighborhood fiesta? Josefina looks like she just stepped off an Old El Paso taco dinner kit, and with similar profiles built on stereotypes, these dolls simply don’t inspire in a world where I expect my daughters to push beyond the boundaries that two-dimensional labels create.

Yo quiero Taco Bell. Image via inmamariquita.galeon.com.

In addition to these offerings, American Girl pitches a more modern doll, cleverly allowing ‘tweens to choose their likeness in skin tone, eye color, and hair (well, sort of…the more “ethnic” options don’t exactly slice in tandem with our nation’s current demographic pie). Because each mini-me comes clothed in a forgettable pair of lavender pants and shirt, your style-savvy daughter is sure to sprint directly to the overpriced unsale rack as soon as she’s created her doll.

And here’s where I have another problem.

While there’s nothing implicitly wrong with cheerleaders and ski bunnies, that’s not how my girls roll. Where’s the snow boarder shredding it down the mountain? The hockey center who just scored a goal? How about a surfer struggling to catch a massive wave?

A lacrosse player and skate boarder move the gender-biased dolls in the right direction, but why not push a decades-old envelope a little and add hip-hop to compliment ballet, and a girl who races a motorcycle instead of a horse?

In other words, give those dolls some balls!

Original drawing by Danny Manion

Avery Williams is a ten year-old AP student who lives in the city and loves photography, snowboarding, and hanging out with friends. She’s an amazing woman-in-the-making, and deserves a doll with balls.

Moms like me (and there are a lot of us) are raising daughters who focus not on what it means to be an “American Girl,” but something with much more depth. We’re working from a global platform as we teach them to be open-minded, multi-cultural, fearless, unbiased, and strong. It’s our hope that they’ll push beyond the superficial borders of pretty and perfect on a fast track toward fierce and outspoken. They may be biracial, adopted, or from fractured families, and they’re all learning to handle life’s ups and downs.

Our daughters are the world’s future leaders, innovators, and pioneers because we’re helping them challenge stereotypes and redefine the meaning of status quo. They are thoughtful, intelligent, risk-takers who aren’t afraid to ask questions, speak their minds, and take a stand.

As mothers, we long to lock eyes with that confident little girl in your line-up of dolls who will grow up to be a scientist, Pulitzer Prize winning author, or President of the United States…a role model whose inspiration reaches well beyond clichés, matching outfits and perfect hair.

But for me, she doesn’t exist.

So, until American Girl offers a reasonably priced, balls-up doll for my girls to cherish, I’ll take my $173.00 plus tax somewhere else. Now if I could just get the grandparents to back their quest to buy plane tickets for a holiday brunch and trunk show at the flagship store in Chicago, everything will be O.K.

Danny Manion is my friend Carrie’s super-talented eighteen year-old son. He’s on his way to Academy of Art in San Francisco next fall. If you’d like to see more of his work, go to http://zerewin.tumblr.com.

 


55 responses »

  1. hmmmm… I think there’s something ABSOLUTELY/TOTALLY/TREMENDOUSLY wrong with cheerleaders. It’s the reflection of the outrageous concept that men are good enough to do things and girls are good enough to cheer them on. It’s distilled patriarchy. Me Tarzan, you Jane. I think, you watch me think. I exist, you watch me exist.

    • I hear you. I don’t know enough about women’s NCAA sports to log a fully-rounded opinion, but in my experience, I haven’t seen girls cheering on girls. Ever. I love the show Mad Men, in part due to the deeply cut characters, sense of style, etc, but I would have FAILED, miserably, in the similar cheerleader role women were supposed to play during that period.

  2. Hey Stacie – Great post. It’s funny, I actually like the American Girls — mostly because of body image issues. Compared to a lot of other dolls on the market (barbies! which yes we have because my five year old loves them), the AGs have “normal” (bigger) bodies. So I’ve always liked that. Plus, even though the history stuff is pretty one dimensional at least it gets kids thinking about history instead of say clothes shopping. (Although not sure it really does given the sheer number of outfits you can buy for these dolls — which of course my five year old loves to obsess about.) I think this starts a very interesting discussion about girls and how they learn to define themselves! Thanks!!
    Meaghan

    • That’s one of the reasons I posted this…for discussion. I know a lot of people feel differently about the franchise, which I understand. I totally get the body image thing. I could write an entirely different post on Bratz dolls and their equally loathsome sister, Moxie Girl. =)

  3. Since my daughter is 39 years old, I have no legitimate reason to buy dolls anymore, other than the fact that I love dolls! I did look at these dolls and when I saw the price, I decided I didn’t need one after all, and not because I object to their influence, or lack thereof, on young girls, just on price alone.

    I have a collection of Barbie dolls, mint in box, because I grew up with her. My mom bought my first blonde ponytailed Barbie in 1959 when I was barely six years old, and I loved her from the get go.

    I just love pretty dolls with pretty clothes, I guess!

    But, I still like to save my money for food and stuff…..lol

  4. “…thanks in no small part to the monthly catalogues that arrive in the mail with more regularity than my period.”–Brilliant! Thanks for the laugh-out-loud.

    Given I have only boys, I haven’t been privy to this madness (and yes, I just used the word privy, but something tells me you might too), but I always enjoy reading about the topic. I recently read the book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture” by Peggy Orenstein (non-fiction). Is a really great take on the commercialization of girls in our society.

    Well-written and witty post, Stacie. As always. 🙂

    • Thanks for the love, Carrie. I’ll check out Peggy Orenstein’s book. It sounds like something I’d enjoy reading…useful as I attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of ‘tweendom!

  5. As an African-American mother of two girls, I can say that, like you, I’ve found the AG franchise to be a bit strange, stifling, and depressing, especially for minority girls. I wonder what minority staffers are on their creative/marketing team. I wonder even more why minority mothers buy these dolls for their girls. I might consider it if the afro-wearing Angela Davis doll were introduced to the product line.

    Even still, the money those dolls cost is RIDICULOUS. I’m so glad my girls aren’t into those things. Trucks and drums: that’s what my three year old wanted for Christmas. My four year old thinks she’s going to be a soccer player and a teacher when she grows up. For $173, I can get drum lessons and soccer team fees for both this summer!

    Great post! I really enjoyed it.

    Marilyn

    • Thanks for your comment, Marilyn. I appreciate the time you took to post such a thoughtful response. It’s a little frustrating, as a mother, to shop the aisles at the toy store because the options are so polarizing…Bratz Dolls and Moxey Girl have absolutely no redeeming qualities. Both of my girls are playing lacrosse this spring, and for much less than $173 I got all of their equipment and gear. A much better investment in my opinion. =)

  6. Stacie,
    Great article. I have a problem with most kid toys, from the uber gender-bended toys of McDonald’s, to the toys my kids play at the daycare. We wanted to give our kids toys which would not impose society’s pre-defined roles for boys and girls (last McDonald’s toy my son received was a war plane shooting missiles. Granted, it’s McCrap, and it’s a once in a blue moon thing, but a fighting jet for boys, and long hair magical peach ponies for girls?). Even the more gender neutral toys like Lego are now targeting genders, with its new line for girls (did you know that your girls can now aspire to become a hairstylist, a singer, or a socialite, according to Lego? Yup, as long as they wear pink and tight dresses to show their boobs)…
    I’m ranting, I’m off-topic… I’m sorry. Stop.
    Le Angry Clown

    • I love it when Le Clown, in any form, stops by. You can’t rant when you’re preaching to a fan. I’m always interested in what you have to say, and am sure the socialite boob lego set will be on my youngest’s wish list for her upcoming bday, so thanks for the head’s up. =)

  7. I remember the first time I bought AG dolls for my 2 girls — geez, that set me back close to $300. (Should have just bought Stuart Weitzman shoes!) Now the dolls are in the storage bin, and I throw out the AG catalogues that arrive regularly before my kids can even see them.

    Like you, I don’t find these dolls aspirational at all – it was a retail hype (and I should appreciate that since I’m a marketing professional), and my kids being biracial, I couldn’t find anything that truly embodies who they are and who I aspire for them to be.

    Great blog, Stacie. Keep them coming. 🙂

    • Thanks for the great comment! It’s nice to know that there are other mothers who share my American Girl ambivalence.

      I’m with you on the shoes…think about how much you’d treasure THOSE, and they wouldn’t languish in the storage bin.

  8. Stacie —

    Natalie — who I’m convinced is going to grow up to be a CFO — sold a bunch of her old American Girl items on eBay for a very healthy profit. We put half in her savings account and she spent the other half on clothes (mostly from Plato’s Closet — she’s a thrift store queen!).

    I don’t have too much of an issue with the AG dolls; I get more depressed that Natalie actually enjoys watching The Bachelor. I keep telling her that show is demeaning to women and that is no way to find a spouse. I wonder if she hears me . . . .

    • Amy, I love the way Natalie thinks! Her fascination with The Bachelor is probably inspired by friends with older sisters, or maybe she’s just got a savvy knack for pop culture. If she keeps going down such a well-thought path, she’ll be able to pick whoever she wants to marry, and she’ll be laughing all the way down the aisle…. =)

  9. Great post! I too feel same way but in a moment of weakness about a week before my 6 year old’s birthday I trekked down to the AG store, reluctantly parted with the money and came home with Kanani from Hawaii. This year at her 7th birthday one of her school friends (i.e.: a wonderfully enlightened mommy) gave her the gift of Rachel, a “heart to heart” doll. I wish I heard of these dolls sooner! So real and such a great back story – Kanani just can’t keep up with her surf shorts and ice cream shack. And best of all my little girl just loves to play with her. Check it out at: http://hearts4heartsgirls.com/the-h4h-girls/

      • Okay. I confess. I own the company that manufactures American Girl dolls. Yes, I modeled them after my elementary school-aged self because I’m a shallow and vain person. Also, if you study each doll closely, you’ll see that, like gingers, they have no souls. Now look into my eyes. Do you see a soul there? I think not. Stacie – excellent post as usual. In response to your insightful analysis, I will immediately authorize the production of a transgendered AG doll with balls who is an ace snowboarder, but is still rejected by the narrow minded kids at her parochial school. I’m also thinking about releasing one with brass balls – we’ll call her Margaret Thatcher. Keep an eye out for our new line of prison AG dolls – kids will be able to select from a vast array of gang banger tats (including the always popular “teardrop” located beneath the eye) and each girl comes complete with permanent track marks up and down the inside of her arms, an orange jumpsuit and a shiv.

      • So I woke up today feeling kind of blah due the copious amounts of post-vaca laundry I need to wash (and dry, and fold, and put away), and the creepy feeling that there’s a woodpecker stuck in my freezer due to the strange rat-a-tat-tat sound coming from the fridge.

        And then I read your response, and am now smiling, and skipping, and fa-la-la-la-laing all the way through my chore-ridden day.

        You’re the best, CC.

  10. Dolls, daughters, dreams, desires, depth, diversion, etc. related to women, that’s exactly what I write about. I was never a doll girl but had seen a lot of girl friends going nuts about their doll-friends. I was such a private person that I couldn’t even share my thoughts with a toy, weird, no, not me, them!

    Your post was fresh. I loved the part where you’ve mentioned the way you are raising your girls, thumbs up! And yes, those blinking dolls are scary & spooky. I rewarded you with a tweet 🙂 XX

    • Thanks for the love and support. Raising children is SO challenging in today’s object-saturated climate…I’m trying to get it right, but it’s a day-by-day thing. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. =)

  11. Im liking and commenting simply based on the joy your title gave me. I guffaw’d and my patient (resting prone) lurched in surprise. Balls. Oy. Still, I thank god at least once a decade that as a child I was pretty and had glossy hair all by myself, dolls be damned. ok..off to read the balance. 🙂

  12. I opted for the American Girls over what was popular when Isabella was younger, the beyond-hideous “Brat Dolls”. Isabella actually had a great time collecting AGs, not for their values or ethnic diversity (that myth was dispelled when I carefully explained to her that the heads & limbs are made from the same 3-4 molds, and the “ethnicity” comes in the form of poured rubber or sugar or whatever material they use to make these), but for their potential as actresses. Yes, she learned how to make stop motion movies with her steadfast, stand-on-their-own, totally pliable AGs. Some of them are hysterical, like when she used Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” (having no clue what it meant) as the theme song for a special series. I think she was working out “sibling issues” that she didn’t have, as an only child, via these characters. Anyway, If you or your girls are interested, you can see them here http://www.youtube.com/user/Isabeanerful?feature=watch

    • OMG I just watched “Best Ever Sisters.” You HAVE HAVE HAVE HAVE to write a post featuring these videos. You’ve got one hilarious, witty, talented daughter. Why am I not surprised?

      (And yes, I also abhor Bratz dolls and their equally evil archrival, Moxie Girl.)

  13. You made hysterically funny and VERY true points… I recently heard Valerie Tripp (author of all the AG books) speak at a writing thing I attended. Her seminar was about writing for girls vs. writing for boys. She thinks all the dolls and the stories have balls (although I get the impression that she would NEVER, EVER use the words “testicles,” “balls,” or even “genitalia” for that matter) and encourage girls to be adventurous, etc., etc. I think she’s a little too well-coiffed to create a female character that wallops the hell out of some kid in a hockey rink…

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jennifer. AG dolls have some great characteristics, but I’ll be more “sold” on them when the hockey player emerges from the girly narrative….I appreciate you stopping by!

  14. This blog post is going to haunt my dreams. My granny used to give me these bizarre ceramic clown dolls in flashy costumes. I would put them away at night because I felt they were staring at me.

    They were.

  15. Finally getting a chance to get caught up on blog reading! (kids are out of town and I haven’t left my bed today!) Thought provoking and well written! I am too lazy to post any kind of thoughtful well-written response about my daughter and her dolls, but I think you already said it! -Chris

  16. Oh, I am right with you on this one. I’d sort of like to push over that first one. Sure, my kids played with dolls, but it did not compare to Mr. Sock Puppy. (Daughter couldn’t say puppet…still can’t) A dirty sock on a hand is preferable to that braided little AG shit. 🙂

  17. You know, I have to say….I welcomed the American Girl phase in my daughter’s lives. It was much better than the princess/ barbie phase. Living in Chicago, we would go to the store often to browse and I always felt as though they tried hard to empower girls for the right reasons. I admit the hair salon and cafe, etc are a bit much and make it very easy to suck your daughters in, but for the most part, their messages are more positive than not. Their AG books about self-esteem, grooming, etc are very good and everyone suggests “The Keeping and Caring of You” for young girls going through adolescence. Not to mention, one doll of the year had a very interesting story behind her that dealt with bullying.
    Again, the barbie/bratz/disney princess thing gets old….I’d much rather have my daughters playing with dolls that represent a message and some history and not one that looks like Hannah Montana. You should watch one of the movies with your daughters, that may give you some insight as well.

    • You have a great point, Carolann. In the spectrum of doll options out there, American Girl is the best of the lot. But I’ve decided that in a perfect world, I don’t want my girls to emulate anyone. I’d rather that they just be themselves. Whether or not they actually are able to do so in the peer-pressured, media saturated world we live in remains to be seen. Hope you all are well…wish you had ended up relocating to Denver!

  18. As mum to a teen boy, I’d never heard of American Girl until today. Out of curiosity I thought I’d see where Google would take me. Hmm. Scary. More scary than the bitty baby…
    Your aspirations for your daughters should be what every parent hopes for their children, male or female.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s