It’s axiomatic that American Girl will need a new product for the holidays every year. That annual new-historical-doll thing has grown old, and the in-dolls for girls of late have already become the “look like me” dolls, which come with no book (unless you count the myriad of assorted American Girl doll diaries and girl-power books, and hair brushes and barrettes cleverly disguised as books, that fill the shelves at our local bookstore). I can live with that-there’s always been something of a mismatch between the age of girls who will maximize time playing with these expensive toys and the age at which girls can read and enjoy the historical stories. My 5- and 6-year-olds love the dolls, and I hope and expect the books to come later. Because what I, and thousands of parents like me, have appreciated about American Girl is that the dolls come associated with a world of books, and a world of simplicity. They are, after all, dolls: well-made, classic playthings that have much to offer for imaginative play whether you embrace the associated clothes and accessories, avoid them entirely, or do some combination thereof. In our town, fifth-graders still proudly display their dolls and collections. (It’s a very small town.)
But in this year’s big marketing push, the AG dolls have gone online. A company founded with a goal of giving girls a classic toy with a sense of living history now sells both dolls and books not meant to allow girls to create and expand their imaginative worlds, but to dump those worlds entirely and head for the big glowing box. It’s not just the “InnerStar University” venture, where girls re-create their (real) doll online and then get to outfit her with lots and lots of virtual clothes (no pesky history there). Both Madeline Holler of Strollerderby and Sadie Stein at Jezebel already called the company out on that this week. (Holler called it a “girl ‘empowerment’ zone where your kids can learn to love themselves one pair of sparkling shoes at a time.”) It’s a new set of books, too: Choose Your Own Adventure -style epics that take place on the “Campus of InnerStar University” and come with “more than 20 different endings,” including a “secret access code to unlock additional endings online!”
As a parent, I neither need nor want dolls and books to pull my daughters onto the computer. In fact, I need the opposite–dolls and books that keep then firmly rooted in their own minds and worlds. They’ll be online soon enough without any help from American Girl. Mattel may feel a need to bring its brand into the future, but I’d argue that Mattel should have considered how much of American Girl’s strength (and ability to persuade parents to cough up hundreds of dollars) was rooted in parents trying to allow their children to remain, for a little while, in a simpler past.