Girl playing with doll.This morning, while at the grocery store, I saw a preschooler carrying her American Girl doll around by the arm. The doll's hair was disheveled and her clothes were crumpled. Although she looked worn, I bet she was brand new; maybe a Christmas gift.
Two weeks ago, I went into American Girl to buy a gift for a friend's daughter. I hadn't been for a few years, and nostalgic, I went looking for my favorite historical characters. But they were nowhere to be found. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the overpowering narcissism emanating from the store. It was two floors, and evidently, all the historical dolls and other "second rate merchandise" was upstairs. Instead, the store was focused on doll after doll that could be personalized to look just like its owner, wore clothes that looked like they came from Limited Too and had hobbies more exciting than any 9-year-old I know. And as for accessories? You can buy anything from crutches to skis to pom-poms. As if that weren't enough, you can also get online and get a doll avatar, who will cruise the net with you, play games and be generally fabulous.
The store has posters everywhere, highlighting words like "confidence," "self-esteem" and "inner beauty." Of course we should be teaching these traits to our young girls. But these expensive toys show our daughters that to have these traits, one must be perfectly accessorized, highly materialistic and the owner of a doll who looks and acts just like them. Does this teach self-confidence and inner beauty? Or does it teach narcissism, materialism and arrogance?
The thing is, I loved American Girls as a child. I had a few historical dolls and played with them all the time. I got my first doll when I was nine and was very careful with her. I didn't want to take her hair down, because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to put it back perfectly. I didn't take her to the grocery store or drag her around by her arm. When I was 12, I spent the first 60 dollars I'd ever made to buy Samantha's tea table and chairs. I played with the dolls for hours, but I also learned. I read all the books, threw myself into the historical time period and learned about other girls who had existed in America's history. I wasn't grooming a miniature carbon copy of myself; I was learning how to be empathetic to others who had diverse life situations. The 'look-alike' dolls had just come out, and of course I wanted one. But my parents didn't see why it was necessary. I remember them asking me what the point was of owning a doll that looked just like me, when I could get one from a particular time period and learn all about a different way of life. I wasn't thrilled with their answer, but they were right.
But now, twenty years later, the historical dolls have taken a back seat to the overindulgent 'look-alike' dolls who seem to exist solely to teach their owners to be narcissistic. I know this next statement makes me seem old, but I just can't help it. We wonder why our kids can seem self-righteous and selfish. Maybe it's because we are teaching them that it is acceptable and perfectly normal to own a one-hundred dollar mini-me doll before age eight. If a six-year-old owns a look-alike doll and spends the next few years cultivating this doll with accessories and clothes, will she become a 12-year-old who only wants to accessorize herself and cannot look beyond her own needs and desires?
The ironic thing is that many times, because the children are too young to own a doll of this caliber, these dolls are treated with little respect, carried everywhere and thrown around like they are not worth treating well. What is that teaching our girls? Let's buy an expensive doll who looks like us, accessorize her to the max and then disrespect her by getting her dirty and being careless.
Sociologically, American Girl has created a fascinating situation in regard to the next generation of women. What are we really teaching our girls by promoting these dolls?
How do you feel about American Girl? Is it teaching your daughter confidence or narcissism?
Sarahlynne, MEd, is an experienced educator and mom of one.