American Girl debuts new marketing strategy....err, doll.

When I saw the Jezebel headline “The Newest American Girl Doll Has A Secret” I couldn’t help but click through.


It turns out the Gwen Thompson, a “companion” doll to Girl-of-the-Year doll Chrissa, is the first American Girl Doll to be living in a homeless shelter. From her American Girl Wiki page:

Gwen and her mother Janine fell on hard times when her father lost his job; they later lost the house as they were unable to keep up payments. Soon after, Gwen’s father left them and they became homeless…

Job loss? Homeownership kaput? Sounds like what a sizeable chunk of America experienced this past year! Looks like American Girl is very up to date with contemporary issues that girls (and their parents) can relate to, or at least recognize (see also: Chrissa vs. the cyber-bullies!). Color me cynical, but I can’t help but feel this is just a marketing strategy by the Mattel-owned company.

In their unending march towards every American girl owning an American Girl Doll that has hobbies, clothes, friends, not to mention precise physical features like their owner, I think they’re hopping on the economic downturn bandwagon. Irony aside ($95 for the low-income Gwen and her book–Add Doll Hairbrush for $7) Gwen’s story is timely enough that I can’t help but think it’s supposed to appeal to girls who might be feeling the recession at home.

I don’t think I’m completely alone in my suspicions, both Anne Elizabeth Moore (who devoted a chapter to the AG Franchise in her excellent marketing and consumerism critique Unmarketable) and New York Times TV critic Anita Gates saw connections between the marketing of Molly McIntire, whose father is away at the WWII front, and a target audience of young girls whose own fathers may be serving in Iraq. One Wall Street Journal reader responded to a 2006 article about the AG Franchise “The Selling of Nicki: Overscheduled Skier With a Cute Dog” by Christina Binkley wrote

I pondered the article “The Selling of Nicki” (page one, Dec. 30), which highlighted the brainstorming and focus groups employed by the American Girl company to design and create the Girl of the Year series of dolls, and was left feeling initially uneasy. As the mother of two young girls, my husband and I have purchased many American Girl character dolls and Bitty Babies because they are high quality, have a historical component and support creative and imaginative play. Frankly, I never considered the calculated marketing tactics behind the expanding line of dolls.

Later, as I drove my daughter and her friend, both happily clutching their new matching Kaya dolls, I stopped to pick up the mail, handed the new American Girls catalog back to the girls and was stunned to hear them both parrot, almost verbatim, the comments of the focus groups regarding Nicki, the Girl of the Year. Juxtaposed against the article I’d read just hours earlier, I’m not certain whether to be impressed or terrified. Perhaps both would be wise.

And even though the New York Post’s Andrea Preyser is a bit vitriolic on the new Gwen doll (“What message is being sent with Gwen? For starters, men are bad. Fathers abandon women without cause. She’s also telling me that women are helpless.”), she does tap into some of the very suspicious “cult-like” environment surrounding the AG franchise. (“I asked to see Gwen, and the saleswoman persisted in referring to the inanimate object as ‘she’.”) The American Girl Doll Stores littered over America feature restaurants, hair salons, and movie theaters for girls to visit with their dolls, all in addition to abundance of accessories you can buy for your doll. (Personal to Preyser: your hollow threat to support Barbie over the pinko Gwen Thompson–“I’ll stick with the thin girl. She never attempted to politically indoctrinate me”–rings hollow since both are owned by Mattel).

I don’t want to paint American Girls completely as an evil corporation (though they did pull in $463 million last year). I read and owned the books (which Moore calls “gateway purchases to the engaging, miniature world inhabited by the dolls”), and felt kindred spirits with the blond-haired Scandinavian prairie-settler Kirsten (Hey, that’s like my name! Hey, that’s like my hair color! Hey, that’s a very general and idealized American past I can get behind as a kindergartner!). Pricetag aside, they’re a much more wholesome (and educational you could argue) alternative to Barbie and Bratz. Rebecca Rubin, the newest historical American Girl Doll and its second Jewish character seems to be well-received for the most part.

But Gwen’s introduction brings up other points. Chrissa is the first “Girl of the Year” to have companion friends (AG nomenclature lesson: “They are also not referred to as best friends but simply Chrissa’s friends. This could be due to the fact that Chrissa has two companions and both feature with equal prominence in her books.”) Does the fact that homeless-shelter Gwen and “at least part South Asian” Sonali are sidekicks rather than Girl-of-the-Year themselves contribute to the other-ing and tokenizing of disenfranchised or non-white young girls? Or is it good that they’re getting the American Girl Doll treatment at all?

Can’t we just be friends? Chrissa can only come with one friend at a time!

Maybe after reading through the books, watching the movie, and anticipating 2010’s Girl of the Year, I’ll have some answers.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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12 Comments Have Been Posted


You know I have to say that I'm a lot more worried about the message Bratz and Barbies are sending to girls. I remember asking for a Felicity AG when I was eight because the back of the book referred to her as "spunky". That seems like a better thing than getting a doll like Bratz that are all about the guys/clothes/make-up thing. I mean at least American Girls come with hobbies, friends, pets, history. I feel like they're a good thing to grow up with, and the price is (gasp) high, but it's true that the dolls are good quality.

And about this new doll being homeless... well even if some rich marketers are trying to capitalize on the recession, at least some girls who are experiencing poverty and somehow get a hold of the books or a Gwen doll are able to feel like they are being represented. Putting out different kinds of girlhood realities-- from girls of different races to time periods to family situations-- is a good thing in my opinion. This Gwen doll could show girls who are middle or upper-class that not everyone is so fortunate, and it can teach girls who are experiencing poverty that they are just as important in subject matter as the richer American Girls.

When Molly McIntire was

When Molly McIntire was created, Mattel had no rights to the Precious company what-so-ever. In fact, the woman who created her (And Samantha and Felicity) specifically made the dolls to counter marketing tactics aimed at girls, with a minimal desire to gain a profit. Her mission statement was about informing girls about the history of women before them in such a context that they were relateable and familiar. It was a very adventurous marketing scheme in a world of barbies and sexually provocative / more "feminine" dolls.

Mattel took over back in 1999 and their marketing strategies are awful. What was suppose to be a line of historical dolls or a small line of "Dolls of today" has exploded into something a little more dirty and under the register. While the doll without a job doesn't bother me, these changes from the Precious Company to Mattel do -

Precious Dolls originally had these characteristics:
# Faces are chubbier and many are molded differently.
# Less face paint on cheeks and lips.
# Eyelashes are softer and match the doll's hair color mostly.
# Chubbier limbs. This can result in newer outfits not fitting arms and legs well.
# Larger feet. PM dolls may not fit Mattel Shoes.
# Softer body vinyl.
# Chubbier overall body shape. Newer outfits are shaped for Mattel dolls and can fit very tightly on a Pre-Mattel doll. Some collectors have removed the internal stuffing to slim down a PM doll to fit outfits.
# Green eyes are a less bright shade of green than in later Mattel dolls


You mean Pleasants Company dolls not precious company dolls.

I miss Pleasent Company (Pre Mattel) American Girls, kind of.

I own Felicity and a lot of her cloths. Until they changed the design of the books I even would buy them (I think I stopped after Josephine). I think since 1990 I gave them a lot of money (or really my parents). I loved the books and I loved the message, which although it has become a lot more commercial is still the same : Smart girls are awesome! About a year and a half ago I went to visit a friend in Chicago and we were going to see some plays and stuff when she was researching what we should see she found the American Girl Review at the AG theater in their store. She bought tickets and I was a little bit uncomfortable when we got there because we were the only ones over 13 with children (we were 24 at the time) but by the end I was singing a long with the American Girl Song. This was totally feminism for girls. I like it.

American Girl Theater

Sadly, American Girl didn't feel that the theater was worthy of keeping and closed all three theaters in the Fall of 2008. It's great to hear that you enjoyed it and it possibly completed your AG experience - but it clearly took you away from spending more money so they canned it. A sad declaration of what is more important to them. Selling dolls.

While I agree that mass

While I agree that mass marketing aimed at children is troubling, I am a big fan of American Girl. The company and the products have changed quite a lot since I was their target audience -- back then, there were only five dolls, all of them historical characters -- but I think the message is still far more positive than those of other products. Their characters are smart, independent young girls, and their stories are fairly radical, especially given their treatment of women's history. I have first hand experience with this; back when I was five years old, I read my first American Girl book, and today I'm almost finished with my degree in women's history. And although the costumes and accessories may seem frivolous, they are actually pretty historically accurate, and they too can serve as a teaching tool. Of course, all this doesn't change the fact that they are a status symbol for little girls, and their marketing is a little scary, but I think this is one of the cases in which it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I see it, there is no better message being presented to girls in the media right now, and while we must certainly be aware of the dangers of such a corporation, we need to also recognize its merits. American Girl was one of my first introductions to feminism and to my current field of study, and I would hate to see girls today deprived of that.

Homeless Doll

My thoughts regarding the American Girl Homeless Doll. What, no shopping cart for pushing the picked over garbage? No cardboard box for sleeping on the street with? No syringe for shooting up with? Shame on the company for making such a doll and shame on any retailer that sells it or any person who buys such an insensitive, deplorable and horrendously miscontrued attempt to hide behind the company's own greed! Trying to profit on the misfortune of the down-trodden! What's next, the Sexually Abused Doll? Shame, Shame! I am sending a copy of this email to any news company who will listen and urge everyone to boycott not only your "Homeless Doll" but all their products!

American Girl

Have you actually READ the books? I'm not even suggesting you buy them. Go to the library.

Gwen Doll

I think that the Gwen doll would be a good thing if the company wasn't getting rich off of it. Maybe everyone would feel better if the money from the doll went to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Wouldn't it be nice if a doll came out every year and 100% of the profit went to a charity? Think of all the charities that could benefit! It could be a feel good thing but as of now it's corporate greed.

I would just like to say

I would just like to say that most of the people that buy American Girl dolls are white. So why is it a crime for a company to target to the biggest audience?

American Girls and McDonalds

Hi, I'm late to the thread but did an "American Girl" search because of a recent McDonald's Happy Meal purchase where the toy included an American Girl book. I had mixed feelings because I loved the toy, it's one of the most useful/engaging/educational "toys" McDonald's have given in a while but I'm wondering about the marketing strategy. The dolls are expensive and how many families can realistically afford them? To match this expensive item with cheap fast food, seems to present a real conflict to the consumer of a want and a desire. but then, why are "high quality" educational items expensive? and why are these items not available to everyone. I guess, now more than ever, it's important to support those local educational institutions like libraries and museums....But I still like the toy!!! think feminist thoughts, think feminist thoughts..

Rebecca Rubin, the newest

Rebecca Rubin, the newest historical American Girl Doll and its second Jewish character seems to be well-received for the most part. <a href="">google sniper 3</a>

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