Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poor Little Rich American Homeless Girl

Back when I was of doll-playing age, the scenarios usually included agendas like playing house or school.

Social issues like homelessness? Not exactly in our scripts.

But now, American Girl has a new doll bringing homelessness to a child's bedroom near you.

As with every American Girl, this one - Gwen - comes with an autobiography. Gwen has had some difficulties in her young life. Her father walked out on them. As a result, her mother lost her job, rendering her and Gwen homeless. (Gwen is part of the American Girl crowd because she happens to be BFFs with Chrissa, who holds the distinction of being American Girl's Girl of the Year for 2009.)

Gwen also comes with a $95 price tag.

That's a chunk o' change. (You do get a paperback book about Gwen with that. No hairbrush, though. That will set you back an additional $7.00).

I know, I didn't believe it either. I was pretty sure this was a hoax, especially when a check of the American Girl website doesn't appear to have a mention of Gwen's homeless status. But it seems that more established media outlets than The Betty and Boo Chronicles have confirmed such, including NBC New York in this clip:

View more news videos at:

Um ... where to even begin with this one? Let me count the ways.

1. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, at least 1.35 million real children are homeless throughout the year, with 200,000 homeless on any given day. Families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

2. I get that the intention behind the launch of Gwen is probably something along the lines of introducing real-life stories to girls, or to "increase awareness" of homelessness. And that's all fine and well and good, but what I am not getting is how exactly the purchase of a $95 doll actually increases awareness of homelessness.

Am I missing something here?

Wouldn't it be better to give that $95 to a homeless organization or to someone on the street?

2. That last question? Isn't all that likely to happen. What would help boost awareness - and be a damn better marketing campaign, quite honestly - would be if American Girl did something bold like matching each $95 purchase of Gwen with a donation (preferably a $95 one) to a homeless organization. Someplace like Project H.O.M.E. in Philadelphia, for example.

It's not like the Mattel executives couldn't afford such a match. Such a cause-marketing campaign could be connected with appropriate opportunities of how families can help make a difference with the issue of homelessness. American Girl has engaged in substantial charitable endeavors with other issues, which is certainly to be applauded. But in these unprecedented economic times where families are experiencing foreclosures and record unemployment, issues like homelessness deserve and need more than lip service - they deserve and need cold hard cash.

My Betty is an American Girl fan, as am I - and despite this "who-the-hell-possibly-thought-this-was-a-good-idea?" scenario with Gwen the Poor Little $95 Richer Homeless American Girl, I will still encourage Betty's interest in all things American Girl. I love the tie-in with the girls and historical references, how they aren't dressed like Bratz, and how issues like safety on the Internet and standing up to bullies, etc. are part and parcel of the whole American Girl marketing and merchandising machine.

And I commend American Girl for trying to raise attention about the plight of homelessness. I just hope there is some type of concrete, substantial action behind doing so.

Because otherwise, if homelessness is just being used as a convenient feel-good cause to jack up $95 sales two months before Christmas, then it becomes what Betty said when I told her that the new American Girl doll doesn't not have a home.

"That's just so sad."


Niksmom said...

Oh. Em. Gee. Dumbfounded.

Jessica said...

My daughter is a big AG fan, and yes I have mixed feelings about some of what they do. The Gwen homeless storyline was included in the Chrissa movie, and I thought they handled it well. The movie's main topic was bullying, something we were stunned to be dealing we at a very early age. They handled that in a way that seemed very reassuring to my daughter. I totally see and agree with your points - but at the same time, they really scored with how they addressed bullying (and if I recall, they did have a public service campaign about bullying when the Chrissa line launched).

Vivian said...

My girls love all things American Girl. You do get what you pay for--the quality is very good. However, it bothers me to no end that the branding is so manipulative that girls want this stuff so much. It's wonderful the company is taking responsibility and opening the eyes of so many girls on social issues, but I agree with you, the price tag is very high, out the reach of many.

Charity begins at home and if it can't be seen, it won't show up on a larger scale. I love your idea of combining awareness with charitable giving. It should be an automatic.

Excellent post.

JoAnn said...

OMG - unbelievable! We are, sadly, past the American Girl doll stage, and the whole collection is carefully packed away waiting to be rediscovered by the next generation of American girls. The only possible redeeming factor here is that if she's homeless, there won't be a corresponding collection of beds, desks, tables, and dishes... (I hope!)