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Monday, October 5, 2009

Meet Gwen

Gwen is an American Girl.

When I was growing up the American Girl series was a staple of my bookshelf.
My favorite book was Molly Saves the Day, which was about summer camp and an epic Capture the Flag game. I owned the entire Kirsten series as well as the Felicity series and a few Samantha books*. I remember the glossy catalogs that came to our house full of dolls and accessories; but I was never very interested. I just liked the stories.

Now, the American Girl company is much much bigger. I went to visit the American Girl Place in Chicago a few years ago, and ate in their restaurant. We were provided with dolls to sit with us at the table as we sipped pink lemonade. I was astounded as we toured the rest of the building to find out that you can now pay to have your doll's hair done, or get her ears pierced.

Perhaps it is because of the huge expanse of the corporation that a great deal of controversy surrounds Gwen, a pretty blond doll who is... homeless.

Apparently Gwen has been around since January, but a recent NY Post story has brought the doll new attention. My favorite back-and-forth debate has been taking place in the comments section of the article posted by

Parents are debating everything from whether or not the company should be donating money to homeless shelters for every sale of the doll, to the nature of what homelessness is.

Personally I don't care to comment on whether or not Gwen should be more "raggedy," or whether she's "truly" homeless according to the details of the book she appears in.
I think $95 is an outrageous amount of money to spend on a doll whether it's "homeless," or not which might be why I never owned a Molly. The irony that no homeless child could probably ever own such an expensive toy is just a bit of added insult.

However, The American Girl corporation isn't marketing Gwen as "homeless," they are just marketing her as a character from one of the books. They are not obligated to give money to a homeless shelter or healthcare program from "Gwen" sales any more than they are obligated to donate money to the African American History Museum every time they sell an Addy doll. It's just not logical.

As for the social implications of the very existence of the doll, I haven't made up my mind yet.
One one hand, the book "Chrissa Stands Strong," (and by extension, the Chrissa and Gwen dolls) teach young girls that they should reach out to everyone across gender, race and class lines. On the other hand, do they send the message, as one reader pointed out, that we should just accept that some people have and some have not? Do they dull the thirst for justice that we should be instilling in our youth by saying 'it's not so bad that Gwen is homeless'?

I don't have these answers, but I suspect that more good than harm comes from inspiring young girls to reach out and help others. And although the message is a tad moralizing and overly-simplistic, it's not a bad message, and it is certainly a great jumping off point for discussion in the home about bigger and more complex issues.

So if parents are really worried about the message is sends to pay $95 for a doll who represents a character who wouldn't be able to afford a school lunch, then they should be trying in other ways to instill a sense of social justice in their children. Talk with your children about their ideas and opinions. Have your kids come with you to buy a toy for a gift drive at church or temple or the Y. Or let them pick out the cans from your pantry for food donations. Bring them with you when you drop off gently used clothing at Salvation Army.

But don't blame a toy company for doing just what they set out to do.

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