I’m not surprised that American Girl dolls are about to be sold a la Webkins with keys to a virtual world—the brand’s fate was sealed when it was sold to Mattel. But the news made me sad. It’s yet another corporate message to children that their imaginative world—their own creative play—isn’t good enough. Back in the day, I was rather fond of the dolls. This was before the factory moved to China, before the television shows, the movies, and the designer stores featuring $25 facials for little plastic faces. Okay, I’m a sucker for dolls, but I come by it honestly. My mother was a sucker for them, too.
My mom died in 1993, when my daughter was four. Before her death, she purchased Kirsten Larson (the one of Swedish ancestry who gets to wear candles in her hair), to be given to Sasha when she turned six. Caveat: Yes, the dolls were expensive, but they were well-made representations of pre-adolescent girls. They were sturdy enough to last for years and not sexualized in any way. On subsequent birthdays and holidays, my daughter received an outfit or two for her doll from friends and family. We never bought the books, which seemed formulaic. We certainly never bought the (very pricey) furniture advertised in the catalogue. My daughter enjoyed playing with Kirsten until she gave up dolls altogether, and I stopped thinking about the brand as she approached adolescence.
Fast forward to the present, and a new, beloved, little girl. “I’d like to buy Marley a really great doll,” I say to my daughter-in-law. “Terrific,” she says, “But, please, please don’t buy one from American Girl.” “Really?” I say, a bit taken aback. “Well, they’re the ones with that store out at the mall, aren’t they?” she says. “I don’t want to get her started on all of that stuff,” she explains patiently. Despite having written a whole book on commercialization and children—to say nothing of directing the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood—I am crestfallen.
So here’s just one of many flaws in the “just say ‘no’” theory of combating the commercialization of childhood: Our relationship to the things we purchase for children is complicated. Our childhood loves and longings influence our choices and, for grandparents, the pleasures and pains of raising our own children go into the mix as well. So when we have a deeply positive past experience with a brand connected with our own childhood, or our children’s, we are resistant to thinking critically about the ways that it has changed. Research shows that brand loyal customers are less likely to notice price hikes, for instance, in the brands to which they are attached.
We’re resistant to grappling with other changes as well. Fathers who played with Transformers as kids don’t want to know that the films are too violent for their children. Adults who spent hours of their childhood building structures with Legos are willing to forgive the kits, the fast food promotions, and even the video games. Marketers, working with psychologists, understand the power of nostalgia to drive sales. Believe me, I understand it too.
In a society that sets virtually no limits on how corporations target children, and when ubiquitous screens make it easier than ever to immerse kids in marketing, it’s a challenge even for motivated adults to limit commercialism in children’s lives. I finally managed to find a doll my granddaughter loved that came free of movies, websites, TV shows and branded stores—but it took me a long time and a lot of effort. It turns out that the American Girl brand I remembered so fondly pretty much wiped out the reasonably-well-crafted-non-sexualized-18-inch-doll market.