Oh, you beautiful (homeless) doll
Tonight, we're celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the founding of St. Francis House, which helps Boston's poor and homeless men and women rebuild their lives. If this sounds like a tagline, well it is. But for anyone who's had the pleasure of meeting a graduate of the SFH Moving Ahead Program, or hung out with any of the folks working in the art room, or chatted on the elevator with one of the residents who now has room of their own thanks to SFH, it's a tagline that rings true. Along the rebuilding way, SFH also serves a lot of meals (about 1,000 a day), hands out a lot of clothing, provides a lot of counseling and medical services, and does a whole lot of other things that help people get back on their feet.
I've been on the Board for over 10 years now, and my involvement with SFH is one of the best things I've ever done. So homelessness is something I think about - not every day, but a lot.
At first, though, I didn't know what to think when I heard about the American Girl homeless doll.
(The first mention I heard, by the way, was on some right-wing talk radio show that was on in the Zipcar I was using. I don't know who the host was. He was giving me such a headache ranting about Obama destroying Israel, his post homeless doll segment, that I had to turn the radio off.)
First, I want to declare that I am a big American Girl (AG) doll fan - and one who's dropped quite a bit of dough there during my nieces' years of fandom. (Ahh, for those pre-Uggs, iTouch, Hollister days.) For those who aren't familiar with AG, there's a series of dolls from many different eras (Kit's from the Depression, Molly's from WWII, Kirsten's an immigrant pioneer, Felicity's the American Revolution girl, etc.). Each doll has a story line (hokey but earnest, told in multiple books), and all sorts of outfits and accessories. All very pricey. (The dolls alone cost about $100.)
While American Girl "stuff" is costly, and pretty much relegates ownership to middle-middle-class and above; and while those story books may put a crimp in imaginary play, the dolls, clothing, and accoutrements are very well made and quite beautiful. Not to mention wholesome - no sexy Bratz dollism, no freakish Barbie body image. These are really nice dolls.
Gwen, the homeless doll, is not an A-lister, i.e., she's not one of the prime characters. She (or, rather, it) is a friend of the main doll, Chrissa.
When I first heard about a homeless doll, I was hoping this was the case.
It was hard for me to imagine what kind of add-on gear they'd have for a homeless doll. Kit has her desk and typewriter. Molly has the dinette set for her birthday party. Chrissa has a pet llama.
What would Gwen the homeless doll have?
A car to live in? A shelter bed to sleep in? Shabby, not especially clean clothing? A hot-plate in a hotel room? A garbage bag full of her salvaged stuff?
But Gwen's a friend to the main event. (Friends were invented a couple of years ago as a way to get people to add-on more than just outfits, etc. Once you've gotten the friend, you have to lard up on stuff for the friend, too. American Girl folks - the company is now owned by Mattel - are marketing geniuses.)
So, what do I make of this homeless doll?
First off, I'm good with a story line that includes a homeless child. Although homelessness is not all that supremely likely to happen to the kinds of middle class kids whose family's can afford an American Girl doll - nor are these kids likely to know any homeless kids personally - it's not a bad thing to expose these lucky and precious darlings to the idea that there are children out there who don't sleep in PJ's that match those of their American Girl dolls. But who may sleep in cars, motels, shelters, some cousin's basement - and live without privacy, stability, and much by way of material comfort.
On the other hand:
Gwen arrives in an outfit that’s perfect for playtime:
- A white eyelet lace dress with embroidered accents
- A pink headband that doubles as a belt
- Pink underwear
- Braided sandals to match
Suggesting to me that the notion of homeless-ness is just a bogus little trope, cashing in on a current "trend" to sell more stuff. (Coming soon, the illegal immigrant doll?)
This is reinforced by some of the comments I saw on the AG website:
"Dear Gwen's hair is wonderfully silky and her big doe eyes! She is stunning! I had such fun the day I got her playing with her hair. Be warned the shoe's [sic] should be watched carefully as they tend to slip off when bouncing around. And of course then they get lost. The dress is simply outstanding the pattern on the front and a neat texture. The belt that is also used as a head band and of course Gwen herself! I have heard complaints that she is homeless and that is giving the wrong message to children but personally I disagree. Gwen is a charming doll overall A+!"
(Note that, while this commenter indicates that she plays with the doll, it sure doesn't sound like it was written by any child I know.)
"Since Gwen didnt come with much, I bought her the Licorice outfit she wore in the movie and the violin set that she plays so beautifully...Kudos on this sweet girl Gwen!!!"
"...She is a beautiful doll and one of the prettiest AG dolls I have seen. Her hair is long and a pretty warm blond color. Her dress is lovely and so well made. I love the embroidery. Her sandals are so cute and look just like all the little girls wear nowadays. We love the headband as a belt or as a headband...Gwen is such a brave, strong, beautiful character. My daughter has even taken up playing the violin because she was so inspired by her. Overall, Gwen is a perfect best friend for my little girl."
Gosh. Gwen plays the violin? Did they really have to have a detail that puts me in mind of Sophie's Choice?
Not to mention that it puts me in mind of a doll that was popular for a while during my childhood. Poor, Pitiful Pearl came with a tattered, mended dress and - I think - some plastic curlers. Her second outfit was a party dress. Curlers and party dress and, voilà, Pearl is no longer poor and pitiful. (Eyelet embroidery, braided sandals. Voilà! Gwen's no longer homeless?)
Still, there's nothing wrong with giving little girls lucky enough to live in AG paradise a little dose of real-fake reality. And I will say that the books do tend to focus on worthwhile attributes (pluck, loyalty, perseverance, kindness...)
Still, if American Girl was using some of the proceeds from the Gwen doll to fund programs for homeless children, I might feel a bit different about having a homeless doll, the existence of which is a bit crueler than the cute embroidered dress and big doe eyes might suggest.