American Girl dolls

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s that time of year again, when some shoppers are roaming the aisles of local toy stores in a somewhat desperate search for gifts that don’t send archaic gender messages to their daughters, sons, nieces and nephews.

Products made by The American Girl, founded in 1985 and now reaching about $350 million in sales a year, offer possibilities.

Each of the company’s dolls–which has a set of associated historical books that can be purchased separately–teaches girls about pioneers, the Great Depression, slavery and Native American traditions.

Unlike Barbie, which continues to be the No. 1 selling doll on the market, the 18-inch American Girl doll has an innocuous body shape. No eating-disorder-inducing hips, breasts or waists here.

Despite all the effort, the Middleton, Wisc., toy company–a subsidiary of Mattel–does not attract universal approval.

Partnering With Girls Inc.

In September, American Girl launched the “I Can” program in conjunction with Girls Incorporated, a national nonprofit based in New York. Girls who buy the “I Can” bands for $1 pledge that “I can be myself, follow my dreams and always do my best. I can reach the stars, lend a hand to others and be a good friend. I can make a difference! I promise to try.”

Net proceeds of all band sales go to Girls Inc., as well as an additional $50,000 in support of educational programming.

That partnership drew the ire of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, which dislikes Girls Inc.’s support of “safe, legal access to abortion.” The league, which supports abstinence education, also calls Girls Inc. anti-family because it advocates for sexuality education that includes information about “safe, effective methods of contraception.”

After learning about the “I Can” program, the Pro-Life Action League urged a boycott of American Girl. It claims to have received over 500 boycott pledges since Nov. 1 and has been joined by five other anti-choice groups.

American Girl executives won’t talk about the boycott other than to supply their official response: “We are profoundly disappointed that certain groups have chosen to misconstrue American Girl’s purely altruistic efforts and turn them into a broader political statement.”

Joyce Roche, president and CEO of Girls Inc., told Newsweek magazine Nov. 14 that the boycott had caught the group off guard. “We went into this feeling so great and so positive about this partnership,” she said. “We have been shocked.”

American Girl, however, seems to be weathering the politics.

The company grossed $77 million in its initial four years. After that its sales began growing in roughly $50 million increments. Although it has not released any projections for this holiday shopping season, the company expects this to be its highest grossing quarter yet.

Shopping for ‘Tweens’

The American Girl doll was born out of the frustration of Pleasant T. Rowland, a women’s history buff who found herself shopping for her “tweens”–8-year-old and 10-year-old nieces–in 1985.

The American Girl series was designed to bolster girls' self-esteem and provide a more realistic image than Barbie.

“To my horror, that was the Christmas that Cabbage Patch Kids hit the market,” the 45-year-old Rowland told Fortune magazine’s Web site. “I thought they were ugly and Barbie wasn’t what I had in mind either. Here I was, in a generation of women at the forefront of redefining women’s roles, and yet our daughters were playing with dolls that celebrated being a teen queen or a mommy.”

A business plan came pouring out: a series of 9-year-old dolls from different historical moments complete with biographies, accurate period costumes and accessories.

Rowland later added a Bitty Baby doll series, modern girl dolls (customized dolls to match their little girl owners’ complexion, eye and hair color), American Girl magazine (now with a circulation of over 650,000) and a line of advice books (including “Skin and Nail Care Tips for Girls”.)

Rowland sold the company in 1998 for a whopping $700 million to Mattel, which also makes Barbie and is based in El Segundo, Calif.

Selena Sermeno’s 11-year-old daughter Marialexa plays with American Girl dolls, but Sermeno has some misgivings about the expenses that can be entailed.

“While I do not necessarily think American Girl dolls are teaching Marialexa any more consumerism than what she is learning by living in a capitalist culture, I am concerned about the dolls being out of reach of many girls,” says Sermeno, a New Mexico-area educator.

An Addy doll, for instance, costs $87, almost six times that of the average Barbie at $15.

Addy is the daughter of escaped slaves and her costume is circa 1864. Her hardcover set of six books and the doll cost $150. You can also purchase Addy’s accessories for $20.

“Use Addy’s kerchief to make a bundle for her to carry,” urges the advertising on the American Girl Web site. “Tuck her water gourd and the reproduction half dime from Uncle Solomon inside–it’s the only money she and Momma have.”

The Web site doesn’t warn little shoppers that it costs a few dollars extra to get Addy’s “textured hair” done at the salon.

Steep Prices an Issue

The steep prices of the dolls have long been an issue.

On the flip side of the cost issue is that the best lesson some girls may get from the American Girl experience is the need to invent or hand-make things for their dolls.

“My mom wouldn’t buy me the bed for my doll, and I felt bad that she was always sitting on the floor, so I took one of the drawers I wasn’t using in my dresser and made it into a place for her to sleep,” 7-year-old Nicole Waldron told Women’s eNews on a recent afternoon at the American Girl store in New York.

“Honey, that’s what poor people used to do back in Ireland when they couldn’t afford a bassinet!” said her mother, an immigrant from Dublin who now lives in New Jersey.

Nicole all but ignored her mother, Gemma Waldron, turning instead to test her memory by naming each one of the 11 collector series dolls lined up in a display case. Gemma told me under her breath, “I do think it is a little over the top, but we try to keep it in perspective. Before we come in, we have a talk about expectations.”

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on the drive for perfection among young women (Simon and Schuster, fall 2006). You can read more about Courtney’s work at

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For more information:

American Girl:

Pro-Life Action League
American Girl Doll Company Helps Fund Pro-Abortion Group:

Girls Inc.
American Girl “I CAN” Bands to Benefit Girls Inc.: