Gwen: The Homeless Doll
Now, I’ve had my problems with the American Girl Dolls in the past. Mainly, I feel that in a lot of ways, though they may be trying to introduce young girls to the concept that, “hey, everybody is different” they are in many ways stereotyping diversity (“You’re Jewish? Do you come with candlesticks and your bubbie’s blanket, too?). But this new doll is just something else completely.
On the one hand, I think spreading awareness about homelessness is definitely a positive thing. We tend to think of the homeless as drug-addicted bums, but especially in this economy that’s not always the case (each year, 1.35 million children experience homelessness in the US – making up 50% of the homeless population over the course of the year). Which may be why this doll looks the way she does (i.e. she is somebody who could sit next to you in English class).
So maybe, just to give Mattel the benefit of the doubt, this was an attempt at social awareness and starting a dialogue about the state of homelessness in our country. But they didn’t do a very good job at it. Andrea Peyser described this doll pretty well in her article for the Post, writing:
In the history books that come with every American Girl doll…you learn that Gwen’s father walked out on the family. Her mother lost her job….Mother and daughter started bedding down in a car…For $95 — more than your average homeless person would dream of spending on a rather mediocre baby substitute — Gwen Thompson can be yours. A mixed message if ever there was one.
I think that’s the thing that gets me the most – none of the $95 price tag is going towards helping the homeless in any way. That’s truly the element that makes this feel like exploitation to me rather than a lesson in social awareness.
Also – what makes a doll homeless? If we’re NOT relying on stereotypes here – which I assume we’re not because the point of his doll hypothetically is to raise awareness and prove that homeless people are just like you or me – what are we talking about here, how can this be developed any further? Clearly a homeless doll is a stereotype in and of itself.
This doll makes people feel uncomfortable – probably because it’s so far outside of the idealistic realm we like our dolls to represent (hello – barbie and body standards for one). We like our dolls to be pretty and perfect and have beautiful lives that almost never represent our own lives in any way. So here is a doll that represents something real (although how well she represents that something is pretty debatable), that could possibly teach a child a lesson (if used correctly as a teaching toy…and that’s a big if) rather than instill lessons of unhealthy body image.
If this didn’t feel like exploitation or a weird type of tokenism it could possibly be a good idea.
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