American Girl doll: She's $95 and lives in her car

The trendy, pricey toy line takes on child homelessness, and the New York Post doesn't like it a bit

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 25, 2009 5:26PM (EDT)

Over the years, the American Girl dolls, those beguiling, overpriced objects of our daughters’ obsessions, have featured a Native American, an escaped slave, and a tenement-dwelling Jewish kid. But none of them have kicked up the dander of the New York Post’s lady-hater at large Andrea Peyser like glass-eyed, vinyl-haired Gwen Thompson. Gwen, in addition to being the BFF of reigning American Girl of the Year Chrissa Maxwell, is homeless.

Gwen’s back story, which unfolds in the lore of the dolls and the accompanying book and movie “Chrissa Stands Strong,” (directed by “Rambling Rose” helmer Martha Coolidge) is a timely one. Her dad has been axed from his job. Her family, unable to keep up with their mortgage payments, has subsequently lost its home, prompting dad to abandon them. She and her mom resort to living in their car, eventually landing at a shelter. For all her woes, Gwen becomes the object of bullying at school from the popular girls.

That’s a world of hurt for a $95 doll.

Writing in her column yesterday, Peyser railed that Gwen is trying to “politically indoctrinate” our youth: “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.” Don’t look into the evil doll’s eyes, kids! She’ll indoctrinate you!

Make-believe aside, children in this “great country” of ours actually are allowed to sleep in motor vehicles. There are approximately one million homeless children in America right now.  Two million whose homes have been foreclosed.  Children who are struggling in the school system and quite likely sitting next to your daughter and mine in the lunchroom today.

Peyser’s not far off the mark when she calls the Fifth Avenue American Girl store “a cult” – I’ve been there, and it was like looking into the mouth of hell itself. I will gladly rail all day long about how expensive and impossibly accessory-centric those damn American Girls are, and the built-in smarm of Mattel making money peddling the fantasy of impoverishment. (They couldn’t give a portion of the sales of Gwen products to say, the National Alliance to End Homelessness? Seriously?)

But I’m not sure that giving girls the option of playing with characters who aren’t doe-eyed princesses is such a terrible thing. The American Girl dolls aren’t aimed at the Gwens of the world -- they’re aimed at the more prosperous kids whose parents can afford them. Many of them will see Gwen not as a homeless kid and not as a tool of the feminist liberal agenda but just a pretty doll. Nevertheless, I can hope that a few of those potential queen bees and mean girls are getting the message of “Chrissa Stands Strong” – that being better off doesn’t make you better, period. That poverty doesn’t make you a pariah. That frankly it’s not cool to be a stuck-up bitch. Somewhere in the simplistic storyline and the retail ca-ching of the American Girl of the Year, Gwen and Chrissa are offering the subversive notion that people who are doing okay could maybe try being nice to people who aren’t. Because there are a whole lot of them out there. Maybe it is political indoctrination, but unlike Chrissa’s party table and pet llama, it comes free with purchase.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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