Homeless doll sends wrong message

sarah.oneill

Meet Gwen Thompson: she’s about 18 inches tall, with long blonde hair, shiny brown eyes and pale skin made out of vinyl. She wears a long white dress with matching sandals and a pink ribbon headband.

As the newest addition to the American Girl Doll collection, Gwen joins a long line of historical characters, including Addy Walker the ex-slave, Felicity Merriman the colonial settler, Kristen Larson the Swedish immigrant and Rebbeca Rubin, the traditional Jewish girl. These dolls come with books and movies about their lives, and are meant to teach young girls about different times in our history as seen from various ethnic backgrounds.

So what makes Gwen, a limited edition doll for this year, so special? She was homeless.
The story that comes with Gwen explains that her family fell on hard times when her father lost his job. He later left her and her mother after they lost the house due to inability to make payments. They lived out of their car until winter came, and then moved to a homeless shelter.

Mattell, who manufactures the dolls, ran into the problem of sending the wrong messages to little girls before. Barbie’s measurements of 5 foot 9 inches tall with a 36-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips sent feminists into an uproar since never would any healthy woman be able to achieve them. The messages sent by the Gwen doll may be worse: fathers abandon families without cause, women are helpless and we could all become homeless in the blink of an eye.

This may seem like a good and truthful idea, since many families are actually dealing with problems very similar to Gwen’s fictional ones. However, they are obviously not the same people who can afford to buy this doll. At $95, Gwen’s family could not even afford her. Furthermore, I don’t think children whose families are experiencing problems like these need to know the dirty details. Gwen’s sad story risks disrupting the innocence we all associate with childhood, which sounds like a backwards marketing strategy for me.

On the business side of things, I’m wondering when the epidemic of homelessness in America became a branding opportunity. In a report recently released by the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than 1.5 million kids are left homeless in the United States each year. This number is ghastly, and we have to find ways to overcome it, not exploit it. Unless every single penny made from this doll goes toward organizations that help spread awareness about homelessness, the concept is outrageous. In a statement released to CNN, Mattel said that while none of the proceeds from the Gwen doll go toward the cause, they are continuing their ongoing partnership with HomeAid America, which provides housing for homeless families. But when you create a homeless doll and charge almost $100 for it, you’re going to have to step up those donations, or else it’s completely ironic.

If the people at American Girl are running low on concepts for dolls, it’s shocking. There are plenty other aspects of our recent history and current society that would make much better, less offensive dolls. Little girls, or boys, don’t need to be bothered with the tragic outcome of our downward economy. Let’s let kids be kids and save the stress about relationships, money and missed mortgage payments for later in life.