The Next Generation of Dolls

The Gwen Thompson American Girl Doll

The Gwen Thompson American Girl Doll

Shopping for little girls is one of my favorite things about the holidays. Not that balls, books and board games aren’t exciting to shop for, but for a boy-mom like myself, there’s something magical about wandering through the pink-drenched aisles of the girls’ section of a toy store. I’ve heard animated birds chirp and seen fluffy cotton candy clouds burst into a storm of glitter when I shop in the girls’ aisle.

The Barbies are familiar—especially the Barbie Twilight Edward doll, who was on every magazine cover in the universe last month—but the Bratz, Earth Friends, Global Green Pals and Sushiami dolls are glamorous, exotic, foreign creatures. I can’t wait to inspect each and every one.

The Poupettes are pretty cute, and Moxie Girlz Sophia’s tutu is darling, but there’s a different name on my nieces’ list this year—Gwen Thompson. She’s one of the newest characters in the American Girl Doll collection and when I asked to take a look at her, the saleswoman said she’s only available through the American Girl Company.

Uh oh. I was afraid of that. I’ve only ventured into American Girl Place once, but it still scares me.

Actually it’s not just the store that scares me-although one step into this alternate universe where girls and their dolls dress alike, have their “Do’s” done at the Doll Hair Salon and their “Don’ts” repaired at the Doll Hospital is enough to drive a sane adult insane, and make the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland seem downright subtle-the doll scares me too.

Gwen-who costs $95 and that doesn’t include a winter coat-is a homeless American Girl Doll.

Not homeless as in “hasn’t been sold yet and is still living on the shelves of American Girl Place waiting to come home with an eager little girl,” but homeless as in “she doesn’t have a place to live.” I’m guessing she doesn’t see the irony of arriving in a cardboard box.

Conceived as a friend character to Chrissa, the “2009 Girl of the Year” who has her own movie coming out in January, Gwen’s story is told in her history book (which is included in the $95 price). There you learn that her father lost his job and walked out on the family, then her mother lost her job and Gwen and her mom spent several months sleeping in the family car before they got a new place to stay through Sunrise House, a homeless shelter for women and children.

Wow. Now I’m waiting for the doll inspired by Amy Winehouse.

That’s a lot of baggage to lay on a doll. It might even more stressful than Barbie’s WNBA Player, Astronaut, Veterinarian, and Supermodel career path. When Gwen first hit the shelves earlier this year it’s no surprise that she was controversial. women’s issues writer Linda Lowen wondered, “How does a toy manufacturer reconcile the excesses of privilege with the unmet basic needs caused by deprivation? By creating a character who faces these challenges and by manufacturing a doll in her likeness, is Mattel opening up an important dialogue or slapping a Barbie Band Aid on a social issue that’s been prettified and commodified?”

New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser went so far as to call out the doll as inappropriate “political indoctrination” intended to encourage children to sympathize with the homeless. “It seems obscene that a company that prides itself on teaching impressionable children about history and-you can have your doll’s hair done for $20! -should engage in political preaching,” she wrote, setting off a firestorm of criticism of the company, the most valid of which I thought was that the proceeds from sales should go toward helping actual homeless children. (By giving them food, clothing and shelter, in addition to cartloads of overpriced dolls.)

Said an American Girl Company spokesperson: “The doll is meant to teach tolerance and is part of an outreach program teaching young girls how to spot bullying and stand up and speak out against it.” They have also stated that the dolls “offer valuable lessons about life,” and are “disheartened that there has been any confusion over our fictional characters.”

The company also pointed out that it has given almost $500,000 to HomeAid, a national nonprofit group that helps the homeless find housing.

A $500,000 donation to help the homeless does make this a little more palatable, but I don’t think that the homeless doll will be finding its way into my nieces’ homes anytime soon. On my budget, I’d probably end up like Gwen.

When Leslie’s not playing in the toy aisles, she can be reached at For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on December 11, 2009.