Homeless doll is hard to embrace

If you're the parent of a young daughter, no doubt you've gotten a wish list that includes an American Girl doll.

If you're the parent of a young daughter, no doubt you've gotten a wish list that includes an American Girl doll.

For those who've been excluded from this must-have toy phenomenon, American Girl offers a line of dolls that come with an historical back story. For example, Felicity is “a colonial girl growing up in Williamsburg in 1774,” while Kit is “a clever, resourceful girl” from the Great Depression era.

A doll and a book introducing you and your child to your latest investment costs $95. (Five bucks extra if you want a hardcover book.) Add accessories, extra outfits, and furniture, and your child's new “friend” can cost about $200.

All of this is part of the reason the latest doll, Gwen Thompson, was received with a big dose of controversy. In her story, Gwen was homeless after her mom lost her job and her dad left the family. Of course, the biggest criticism is the sad irony that this homeless doll costs more than what a homeless family could possibly afford.

On the flip side, there are parents and others who say the doll raises awareness about homelessness. American Girl defended the doll, pointing out that Gwen is part of this year's line that focused on raising awareness about bullying. Following the controversy, the company also emphasized its philanthropic efforts to combat homelessness, and its nonprofit partner, HomeAid America, stood by it.

However, American Girl's response was too little and too underwhelming. At a time when a number of families are losing their homes and jobs, the introduction of a homeless doll requires acute sensitivity. Moreover, though a “homeless” doll might always raise a few eyebrows, if the company had better introduced Gwen and her story, she might have found a more sympathetic audience –one that embraced, rather than vilified, a prettily outfitted blond kid with flip-flops.

If American Girl had put its CSR efforts front and center on this – say, donating that $95 to its chosen charity, or at least pointing out that it already supports HomeAid – the making of Gwen wouldn't have also become the making of clueless, out-of-touch American Girl.

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