American Girl dolls: good for girls?

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 2:02 p.m. MDT

Since the early '90s, American Girl dolls have been the toy of choice for young girls. These aren't just dolls, they are characters with their own back stories and accessories. Each doll comes from a different ethnicity and portrays a different period of American history.

The dolls are expensive, but according to education advocate Andrew Rotherham, they are worth it if it means his daughters won't play with Barbies:

"I groan at the price — a standard 18-inch American Girl doll and book costs $105! — but I’ll pay it for giving my daughters a healthy self-image and more than a dash of history compared to what Barbie is peddling."

He continues:

"I’m suggesting Barbie take a page from the young American Girls and start releasing dolls with elaborate back stories augmented through several books (not to mention loads of swag) detailing, for example, a girl whose father is off fighting in World War II or a plucky student who is trying to get her school to create a girls’ basketball team in the 1970s, tucking in a little Title IX history along the way."

While the dolls are popular, not everyone agrees that American Girl dolls are superior to Barbie. Andrea Peyser, a journalist for the New York Post, argues the dolls' back stories are laden with a liberal bias.

"It seems obscene that a company that prides itself on teaching impressionable children about history and grooming — you can have your doll's hair done for $20! — should engage in political preaching."

But that is precisely what this company is doing, she wrote. Citing the example of an American Girl doll whose back story included that she is homeless, Peyser argues that the implicit message is:

"For starters, men are bad. Fathers abandon women without cause. She's also telling me that women are helpless. And that children in this great country, where dolls sell for nearly 100 bucks a pop, are allowed to sleep in motor vehicles. But mothers don't lose custody over this injustice. Because, you see, they are victims, too."

Pesyer concludes her article arguing,"Barbie, the feminists long complained, gave girls body issues. But she never attempted to politically indoctrinate me."

Other objections to the American Girl dolls include the concern that they perpetuate stereotypes. "I find it very disturbing that the product — the actual doll is called 'the American Girl' — very clearly imposes the stereotypes about who the American girls are and what do they look like. Each doll represents a different lifestyle that becomes an intrinsic part of each girl’s life," said Polish-born photographer Ilona Szwarc, who is currently working on a project photographing young girls with their dolls.

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