Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Julie Z on 10/10/2009

Gwen: The Homeless Doll

is this the country club doll? no...this is the homeless doll.

is this the country club doll? no...this is the homeless doll.

I’m not kidding. The same people who brought you Rebecca Rubin,  Jewish doll by day, eco terrorist by night, are now introducing 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.

what a strange slogan. wtf is an inner star and where am i following it?

btw - what a strange slogan. wtf is an inner star and where am i following it? American Girl WHO RUNS YOU AND WHAT ARE THEY DOING?

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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  • Shannon @ at 11:36 am, October 10th, 2009

    The money aspect really bothers me too. I had five American Girl dolls growing up (Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly, in case you’re wondering), but I’m 26 and at that time the company was privately owned. Nowadays they’re a division of Mattel. Also they weren’t as pricey, though they were definitely an indulgence.
    My parents got me the dolls because of the books and accessories. It was a way for me to relate to history. They’re not perfect- lots of happy endings, some stereotyping- but they plant a seed of curiosity. But learning about Victorian America was a lot more fun with a little harness to hold tiny school books and a locket that matched Samantha’s.
    I think this is a good way for kids to learn about homelessness without feeling like they’re eating their vegetables. It’s a relatible story concerning a subject they’re going to encounter fairly quickly in life. Just like I found ways to identify with girls a hundred years ago (she has a composition book too!), they’ll find little things that are familiar in Gwen’s story.
    It’s the money factor that bugs me. I hate that these dolls are so expensive, putting history only in the hands of the affluent. And having a “homeless” doll cost $95 disgusts me the way the show Survivor does- poverty becomes a novelty, an entertainment to the bored and comfortable.
    Mattel makes a bundle off of these dolls. There’s no reason they couldn’t make this a charitable endeavor.

  • ellecarter @ at 11:39 am, October 10th, 2009

    Both my sister and I had a a couple American girl dolls. For us it was something special to share and bond with my grandmother over. I loved taking my doll on trips and dressing her up for special occasions. And honestly in a society where Barbie unfortunately rains supreme you have to admit the America Girl Dolls are a breath of fresh air. I mean the first books i read were American Girls Doll books. But I have to agree a homeless doll does make you scratch your head. I totally get many family are having a terribly tough time in this econmy, but lets get uncomfortably real, the kids that could probably relate the most to Gwen most likely can’t afford her right now. Like I said uncomfortable, but sad and true.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 1:01 pm, October 10th, 2009

    idk, I think the doll is a good idea because I live/grew up in a city that has lots of homeless people,some of whom are quite scary.

    Like Babs, the crazy homeless lady that threatens to chop people up and eat them. It’s very disconcerting at 3am when it’s just you and Babs on the street… Has she lost the last of her marbles? Should I be running for my life?

    Or the Nyquil cowboy, who is always stoned on…something I’m probably better off not knowing about.

    Babs and the cowboy are not unusual, many homeless people have mental disorders and/or have severe substance/alcohol abuse problems. not to mention the criminals who hide among the homeless that the police keep warning us about.

    Soo girls like Gwen are forgotten about as they are invisible – the quite, slightly more dishevelled girl who’s sitting next to me on the train.

  • Alexis @ at 6:00 pm, October 10th, 2009

    I read about this in the Huff Post. It is absolutely ridiculous.

    The company has totally changed since Mattel bought it from the Pleasant Company. I was obsessed when I was younger, begged my parents for the dolls after reading the books (I don’t even know how many times).

    I think Mattel’s ownership has stripped the dolls of their original purpose …

  • Criss @ at 9:58 pm, October 10th, 2009

    I think we need to remember that most girls read the books — where we find out about Gwen and her story, and realize that “homeless” doesn’t mean the crazy alcoholic bum sitting on a street corner — and don’t own the dolls. The books are accessible to all; first of all, they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than the dolls, but even if you don’t have the $5.95 because, like Gwen, your dad lost his job, then you can borrow the books from your school’s library or from the public library, for free.

    American Girl does donate money regularly to several charities that help children, one of which is HomeAid, which does work to end homelessness. I doubt this doll will be a big seller — at $95 each, few girls have more than one doll these days (Shannon, I can’t believe you had FIVE. But, as you said, the company was not part of Mattel then, and the price was lower). Most girls, if they buy the American Girl dolls at all, will by the title character from their favorite book. Gwen is a major character in Chrissa’s books, but doesn’t have books of her own. Girls who follow those story lines are more likely to want Chrissa than Gwen.

    So, if you think about it, donating a percentage of the proceeds from the doll wouldn’t be much money anyway.

    On the other hand, if you want to express your dissatisfaction with the way Mattel and American Girl are handling this, why not make a donation to a homeless shelter yourself? Take the $95 you’re not using toward the doll and give it to people in need. Or donate 95 minutes of your time at a food bank or soup kitchen.

  • RebJ @ at 11:42 pm, October 10th, 2009

    I loved reading American girl books when I was little. Samantha was my favorite. I learned how to insert a tampon from reading “the Body Book for Girls”. I cured my boredom by checking out crafts/activities in the magazines.

    But now, I think they have lost their charm; the American Girl company has turned into another massive corporation that encourages materialism and consumerism in today’s youth. When I was young, it was just fun to read the new Kit book or do crafts from AG magazines. Now, girls HAVE to have a $100 plastic doll to join the fun. The magazines encourage girls to be creative and innovative–but the price for that is buying their latest (and rather pricey) “how to _____” book. Its not really empowering/inspiring/fun anymore.

    So I’m not really suprised to see them coming out with a “homeless doll” and a “jewish doll” now. Anything goes for them if they can make money off it. I just hope people realize that, and give their daughters something more meaningful to grow up with.

  • Jenna @ at 9:33 pm, October 11th, 2009

    This is a doll with, what is at heart, a good message. Even though your mommy and daddy can afford to buy you a $95 doll, there are other little girls living in their cars. Who knows, it might inspire little girls to do something about homelessness.

  • toongrrl @ at 1:49 pm, October 12th, 2009

    Anybody notice that most of the American Girls are wealthy? This doll looks like she’s from a steretypical conneticut country club. I don’t really hate American Girl, I just point out it’s flaws.

  • Vanilla ninja @ at 10:48 pm, October 12th, 2009

    I don’t know how I feel about this. On one hand awareness is good but on the other hand it’s ironic and not in a good way. What I think would be great though is if a bunch of these were donated to little girls who don’t have as much as the girls who’s parents can afford this

  • Sarah @ at 1:01 am, October 13th, 2009

    When I was like, six, I had a dollhouse. I had a mommy doll, a daddy doll, a sister and a brother, grandparents, and outside the house in a gray blanket was the homeless lady!

    If this doll spreads awareness, I see no problem.

  • Rose @ at 1:19 am, October 13th, 2009

    I think it’s good in that it’s likely one of the only chances for upper-middle-class and rich girls to understand the real problems of homelessness and poverty in our country. As I said when Jezebel covered this, I went to a high school (I’m in college now) where the majority of students were fairly well-off, and many of them were raised with the idea that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault for not trying hard enough. I can’t tell you how often I ran up against this born-on-third-base-but-thinks-s/he-hit-a-triple mentality, especially during the election season when it seemed like everybody was a “libertarian” and supported Ron Paul. So if this doll means that more rich kids are aware of their economic privilege, understand that poverty/homelessness is a more complicated problem than their parents might make it out to be, and feel obligated to do something to help the less fortunate, then I consider it progress. It doesn’t mean the ideas behind the doll are perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  • MLS @ at 6:31 am, October 13th, 2009

    There was recently an article about this on Jezebel (jezebel.com, check it out!).
    In my family, American girl dolls were a big thing. My sister and I had two apiece. However, there was a requirement. We had to read all the books for that particular doll and then we would get in on the next major holiday.
    Obviously, this didn’t span beyond two dolls because they’re just so darn expensive, but our parents were simultaneously teaching us about work for reward, the importance of reading, and whatever history was in the books. If a girl really decides she wants one of these dolls, the parents should make sure she knows something about her by reading the books or doing a report. She’s learning about something, not just playing costly dress-up.

  • Jenna @ at 6:25 pm, October 13th, 2009

    This doll looks like she’s from a CT country club?

    You know, for girls who don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, that’s what you’re doing. What was the company supposed to do? Maybe you should email them and recommend that this doll have unkempt hair and some dirt all over her face!

  • Eresbel @ at 11:53 pm, October 13th, 2009

    I am a little wary of the way this article talks about stereotypes. The point of these dolls is to share a certain culture with those who aren’t a part of it already. Of course there are many different sub-cultures, but what would be the point of creating a Jewish doll to spread the understanding of Jewish culture if the doll’s character didn’t actually practice or wasn’t deeply involved in the culture? What would be the point of Felicity if she just didn’t give two ha’pennies about the revolution? Or if Samantha preferred to maintain class hierarchy instead of heralding the rise of the middle class?

    “Clearly a homeless doll is a stereotype in and of itself.” Why? That is not immediately clear to me. My impression of that quote is that any identity is a stereotype in and of itself.

  • prpltoz @ at 12:46 am, October 16th, 2009

    Can someone please post a link to the evidence that this is actually happening? I went to the American Girl site and do not see Gwen listed. And also posting the link to the original article you found this info in would be great too.

    I’m also wondering where all the American Girl bashing is coming from. To me it seems the same as when I was younger, just that now there is more dolls, and more of them b/c all that ones that existed when I was younger are still there too. I feel like there was always the desire to want the stuff in the catalogs so I don’t know why people are saying its more about “stuff” than what it used to be.

    And if this homeless doll is true, I can see both sides. The stories can really help open girls eyes to things that they may not know about. Though I do think it is ironic that a homeless doll is so expensive.

  • Chantal @ at 7:53 pm, October 17th, 2009

    I appreciate what you have to say, and it makes perfect sense, just watch when you say things like “drug-addicted bums” or atleast make sure to really qualify those statements. As someone who is breaking into the social service field by working with homeless/under-housed and substance using individuals, I have met so many wonderful people who ultimately get labelled that way and are deemed as insignificant. While I understand you’re pointing out stereotypes, use of language and discourse in-of-itself perpetuates stereotypes. I guess what I’m trying to ultimately say is that their humanity should be a focus, not the fact that their addicts or bums.

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  • Lon Bintner @ at 6:02 am, September 26th, 2010

    At first I thought duvets are for girls. My mom handed me one with zombies though just the way I like it yeah. I’m now in the closet, a fan…

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  • Mackenzie @ at 5:58 pm, May 29th, 2011

    First off, thank you Eresbel and Jenna, for your comments. Julie, I am immediately disturbed by the article by Peyser which you pulled from. The last lines of the article suggest that we should stick with Barbie rather than introduce young girls to new information, cultures, and promote skepticism and critical thinking. Yes, the group of girls who would be able to most closely relate to the Gwen doll will not be able to purchase her but I don’t think that means she has nothing positive to offer.
    One would not expect me, a white girl living in Utah during the 21st century, to identify With Addy, the African-American runaway slave, yet I remember sobbing in bed one night and calling for my mom after reading that her master forced her to eat tobacco worms.
    At age 6 reading Addy’s story was the first time I had ever heard of slavery. What I am trying to say is that just because the little girl, who’s parents buy her the Gwen doll and books, is not homeless doesn’t mean that she cannot take from it an awareness of homelessness well.
    I loved American Girl dolls and especially the books when I was little. They were the first books I read and my friends and I would exercise my creativity by playing with the dolls. I would even say that they contributed significantly to my development into the feminist, book-loving, history-buff, and social activist I am today. Barbie never offered me half as much.

  • Lisa @ at 12:51 pm, January 18th, 2013

    Hi everybody :) And Thx to help share this message. We are a group called CR4Help, dedicated to helping children in need in Central America, mainly Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Our first project is a community called Martina Bustos in Costa Rica, one of the poorest in the country. Our goal is to raise money to build a school for the children of the community since there isn’t one nearby.
    This is a really great cause and it just takes a few minutes to read our story and watch the video. If you can, please donate! And if you can’t, please share and help us reach our goal! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ukQ9cPh9no ) Thank you and pura vida !!

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