Friday, June 15, 2007

And how!

I was happy to see Debbie Reese confirm my impression of American Girl World as hostile territory. Why people continue to see this empire as good for children is beyond me. If you want to educate your children into the joys of brand loyalty and conspicuous consumption, at least Disney is more affordable. And the catalog? Yup, still porn.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me? Porn? Have you SEEN the things readily available in books, the net, the stores aimed at girls? I'll take an AG book or doll over a Bratz doll or a Christina Aguilera cd any day.

Andy Laties said...

The Debbie Reese critique is terrific.

I remember that when that store in Chicago opened, across the street from the flagship 40,000 square foot Borders bookstore, I learned a year later that the Borders store had a $20 million gross sales year, and the American Girls Store had a $25 million gross sales year. Now, Debbie, that's what's TRULY gross about American Girls.

Ahem.

As to the question of the relative pornographic nature of the AG product portfolio, I think I addressed this a few months ago. AG is a commercial proposition from the mind of someone who deeply understood the mechanisms of American Marketing since her dad ran the Leo Burnett Ad Agency. The AG products are sold using these techniques. Vance Packard's classic, The Hidden Persuaders demonstrates how advertising has always utilized sex. Of course the AG marketing materials have sex as their basis. Sex sells. Who exactly plumps hundreds of dollars for those products? Little girls? Of course not: their mothers and grandmothers (and dads and granddads). That is: Grown-ups, who need to be appealed to utilizing the same marketing mechanisms used to move cars, toothpaste, beer, movie tickets, etc.

Book sales remain flat. Bookstore sales dropped 6% last month. I say, heck, why doesn't EVERY publisher start using sexy advertising to push ALL their books. (Runaway Bunny is pretty damn sexy already, actually.)

Roger Sutton said...

let me add that Andy and I are using "porn" differently--just as there is food porn, wedding porn, and real estate porn, the American Girls catalog, with its ninety-dollar girls (accessories sold separately) and come-hither-and-buy-buy-buy-me design and lighting, is toy porn.

Andy Laties said...

I took a Visual Anthropology seminar this past few months, studying the history of ethnographic film -- beginning basically with Nanook Of The North, on through Les Maitres Fous, and Dead Birds -- up through Tongues Untied and Reassemblage. Lots of critical theory reading, and anthro analysis with long words and convoluted sentences. There's a fascinating correlation between Ethnographic Film and Pornographic Film: consider how "natives"/"savages" are often naked in ethnographic films (New Guinea tribesman or Amazonian Indians) -- just as in pornographic film, actors' bodies are objectified and presented as "other" than subjectively embodied human being. (One essayist even argues that this objectification of bodies is equivalent to Taxidermy!)

This goes back to the original American Girl question re: Native Americans and in fact all the "categories" of Girls (Hispanic, African American, Pioneer, Immigrant). These book-characters with their simplistically clear ethnic/social categories are being objectified through the simplistic typification of their experience. Similarly, the dolls act to objectify the book-characters' bodies. (Clothed bodies or unclothed bodies -- and by the way, the dolls do Get Naked when they're handled for dressing and undressing.)

Thus, the pornographic content of the American Girls concept is linked to and emerges from its ethnographic content, via the process of objectification.

So -- you can argue that there's a Toy Porn effect. But also there are other porn effects that emerge from the Story-Character identities that go with these particular toys.

If I've contradicted something I wrote in the prior post, well, really, who cares?

Debbie Reese said...

Hey Andy---if you've got an electronic copy of the syllabus for that class, I'd love to see it (debreese@uiuc.edu).

Roger---As Jean and I walked down the street, we wondered where the Mirasol doll was. AG fans will recall that Gary Soto's book took a good bit of heat. Jean and I could not stand the thought of entering that space again to look for Mirasol. I looked up the AG website this morning and saw that she was only a special edition/short term "doll of the year" or some such thing.

I read another blog later this morning about AG. Observation from that blogger was that shoppers were affluent whites, and only people of color were sales people. That prompted me to run the reel of my visit in my head, and that's what I saw, too. White women and their daughters buying, dropping one box after another into their baskets; several of the sales people (including the one who told me about the theater productions) were African American.

Tammy C said...

The juxtaposition of "doll" and "porn" makes me think of those old (yet ever-new) Dare Wright books with Edith and the bears.

The American Girl dolls look a little bit like Edith, don't they? Do you think Edith was an early influence on Pleasant Co?

Stella said...

I never had the dolls when I was little, we couldn't afford them (though I was a fan of the books, and even read through to the historical information in the back). But a friend of mine in third grade had Molly and Samantha, and even though Felicity was my favorite, we'd play. Although, play mainly did consist of dressing them up. And that was all.

At least Barbie has Ken. Put Ken next to Samantha, and I think someone would go through a bit of an inferiority complex.

I agree, though, that the best way to enjoy those dolls is to simply look at their pretty things. Barbie was much more versatile. The top drawer of my dresser was her penthouse suite. It's a pity that little girls have to lose their imaginations to marketing.

B. Johansen Newman said...

And what's even worse about AG--let's not forget that even as they have introduced a doll and story incorporating almost every ethnicity under the sun, and have just come out with yet another caucasian AG doll, ad nauseum, they have yet to come up with an Asian doll and story, as I noted in this post back in Jan:

http://johansennewman.typepad.com/cats_and_jammers_studio/2007/01/get_with_it_ame.html

Roger Sutton said...

That is surprising, B. (and happy birthday). I'm guessing they would want to go Japanese rather than Chinese--but maybe they could have a Japanese girl somehow living in San Francisco's Chinatown during the earthquake (thus providing the necessary historical moment) and have her desperately running back into her family's house for her beloved . . . KIMONO.

Anonymous said...

Last year, Harper's serialized a fun, if over-the-top, novel by J. Robert Lennon about the American Girls phenomenon and the company's founder, Pleasant Rowland.

Of course, the author cautions us that there's no real connection between Pleasant Rowland and his novel's main character, "Happy Masters."

But there are some entertaining coincidences.

A link to a discussion with him:

http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=16997154&BRD=1395&PAG=461&dept_id=216620&rfi=6

mta

Andy Laties said...

Wow. Taxidermy, indeed.

Robin said...

When my daughter was little, say 8 or 9, she loved her AG Kirsten. Her aunt (jealous of my girlchild) gave it to her. My daughter then saved her pennies to buy TWO more dolls.
I wouldn't pay for them.

When my daughter packed up some of her things during the pre-college preparation days, she looked at these barely-touched dolls and sighed. "How could I have wasted so much money on these?" No comment.

My sister (same sister) recently sold an in-the-box AG doll on e-bay. $300.

I believe my daughter will be doing just the same. At least she will get some of her money back.

OH, Debbie, we went to the AG store once and found it terrifying. Girls and dolls dressed the same---very Stepfordian mothers with their equally Stepfordian daughters. Nary a boy in sight. Piles of money changing hands.

In Nashville, where I live, flying to Chicago for a birthday party at the AG store is quite a common happening. When the kids return, I quiz them about the trip to Chicago. I hear nothing about the Art Institute, Garrett's popcorn, a trip to Wrigley, the elevator ride up a skyscraper...nope, just fly to one of America's most stunning cities, settle into a hotel with a stack of movies on DVD, go to the AG store, swim in the pool, and come home.

Blah.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I'm feeling really lucky at the moment. My 4 year old daughter likes dollies on a small-scale, i.e. Playmobil. We may have a plethora of Playmobil dollies, but at least they all fit into one box when it's time for cleanup. I'm crossing my fingers that she never gloms onto AG. It certainly won't be through me, and I'll exercise my parental right to say NO.

Roger Sutton said...

I just saw a hilarious skit on The Big Gay Sketch Show, a cable show. There's a regular character, Fitzwilliam, played in the finest pantomime tradition by a woman as a saucy little boy. Fitzwilliam is kind of an Edith-Ann-meets-Lolita nancyboy. In this episode, he and his magic unicorn Trixie and his father are visiting American Girl Place and he insinuatingly asks the clerk, "Do you have any American Girl . . . accessories?" Why yes we do, replies the clerk and she asks him what he was looking for. Fitzwilliam says, "I should like to buy a vagina, please."

Andy Laties said...

So, don't leave us hanging: Did they stock them? In multiple ethnic varieties?

Anonymous said...

It's Anonymous Dad Again!!!

When I took my son to Chicago the Only American Girl we saw was Sue (the T-Rex)at the Field Museum!!!
Thank goodness my son is an American Boy- who likes dinosaurs, bugs, and books!!! I did buy him the Skippyjon Jones Stuffed Toy!! It's not really doll!! Ha!!!

This blog keeps me laughing and THINKING!!!

KT Horning said...

Roger, the story about Fitzwilliam is HILARIOUS. I'd like to see American Girl bring out a transgender doll. All their book titles would work so well:

Meet Fitzwilliam
Fitzwilliam's Surprise
Changes for Fitzwilliam

AMY said...

What I liked about the editorial was how it seemed to be a continuation of a conversation here a few weeks back. I dunno which you wrote first, but it was nifty to notice the tendrils.

Mary Ann said...

I've always been disturbed by how all the accessories make the dolls historically inaccurate, a point tangentially mentioned by the original post. My stepdaughter has a Kit doll, Great Depression, and I cannot believe the amount of "goodies" that she can obtain, being the daughter of an unemployed father. I am told there is some story explanation but it still bothers me. I haven't actually read the books, and while I buy her a ton of books, I stay far, far away from the AG stuff. I agree about the "toy porn", the catalog sort of blows me away.

Anonymous said...

A little off topic, but funny.
I read Andy's comment so quickly this morning... at first I thought I read "Runway Bunny is pretty damn sexy", instead of "Runaway Bunny".

Roger Sutton said...

The editorial is from 1999. It irritated a lot of people and is probably the one editorial I've written that I would like to take back. The context--the editorial page of the HB--was all wrong. It would have been right at home on the blog, though.

rindawriter said...

I have Native American ancestry (my maternal grandmother), and I don't see the point in being angry that ethnic groups are "left out" or inaccurately or incorrectly portrayed in the American Girls dolls. The company doesn't portray caucasian dolls accurately, doesn't portry their associated historical realities accurately, and it is grotesquely commercialized, a commercialization based on the worst sorts of racial and ethnic stereotypes, and geared furthermore towards the buying capacities of financially comfortable upperclass and upper middleclass families. I don't want to say "white," because undoubtedly some folks with ethnic background are going to be falling into that financial category and are and will be buying those "ethnic" dolls from this company. I would say rather folks with money and heavily endowed with ye good olde American value of crass consumerism. This goes far, far beyond being solely a Native American problem.

WHY would ANY ethnic group feel bad at being left out or marginalized or wrongly portrayed by such a company when the grotesque historical inaccurracies are across the board in all of their products, but most particularly in their "caucasian" products? These dolls don't smell. They are pristine, perfectly clean, and everythign always works out to happy never, neverland. They don't live in worlds where early death, violent death, cruel death really exists. They don't live, in short, in the third world realities that many Native Americans and many early settlers and many depressesion era families, etc., etc, etc. had to live in. THAT'S what is truly obsene about this company and their dolls. It's become a belief system.

To be fair, might I add, neighter have most of you who comment on this blog lived in that kind of reality. Third world reality. I have. And I frankly don't think any of you either could face living in those realities that some of your ancestors did. Frankly, they would stink too much. And you would have too much of American values, white man's values, Eurpoean, western, modern world values in you. You couldn't handle the dirt, the smells, the horrible living conditions, the DISEASES and sufferings that go untreated, the psychological effects of such living conditison, the psychological effects of racism and war on those families. And their children. So. This might be a good opportunity to study your own biases as well, to take time apart, and to reflect on yourselves, too.

If your ethnic group is not portrayed in teh company right now, breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped the atrocity. If your group is portrayed, breathe a sign of relief at being at least in the margins, less obvious! What ethnic group WOULD WANT to be portrayed by a company like this? I have no doubt, does this war in Iraq continue, that they'll come out with some American GI Sally and GI Johnny doll version....

I think, privately, it is "white" or european or Western thinking, whatever you call it, to try to categorize Indian tribal groups anyway, especially when it comes to modern, western products like this or modern western innovations like movies or even museum displays, to say this or that detail is correct or whatever when the real probelm is in the cookie cutter, mass production of a stereotype, of a way of thinking. To pick apart the details of that sort of thing, a company like this, in how accuratelyt they portray this and that with critical thinking is a persepective is "white" is western, is european in the first place! Better to do as many Indian tribes did, rebel against the whole thing, as Roger, basically, is doing. Team up to fight it with other ethnic groups and with caucasians as well who see the problems for their groups equally. It is NOT just a Native American problem! It's a problem for anyone of any ethnic background who thinks intelligently and with real empathy and seriousness on American values of consumerism and racism. Let's get some solidarity here on this, at least. Stop narrowing the focus just to Native Americans only. The problem is far wider than that.

In addition, NO authentic Indian doll that I have ever seen for example has NOT been completely original, completely unique, completely the work of an individual maker. It's totally alien to Native thinking, Native culture the whole idea say of of mass producing Indian tribal dolls in plastic with identical "correct" details of dress and accessories, for each tribe, etc. And Indian children did have and some still do have authentic dolls that are made for them, individually. It's a whole perspective on dolls that is so totally alien to what the Americal Girl dolls company is doing. They shouldn't be trying to represent Indian dolls AT ALL! Period!

Maybe what we ought to be doing in additon to just critizing this company is to actively support and promote individual Indian dollmakers who do create uniuqe dolls and ALL those who strive to work at a craft and make unique objects in this culture. They surely could use the help and support, given how hard it is for all crafts people to survive these days in America.

Yup. The three great values of American culture: Consumerism, racism, and militarism. Alive and well all right. Alive and well....
I won't be able to respond to this as I have a ton of work to do now to try to survive as an individual business person trying to practice some decent IDEALS and values in this American culture...

bkwmn99 said...

Ironically, many years ago, my daughter first encountered the American Girl catalog and the phenomenon at the exhibits at ALA!
I had purchased a day pass for her and my husband, and we were surrounded by books- she was thrilled to get the first of the
Time Warp Trio autographed by John Sziescka- THEN she found the AG catalog- which she practically memorized on the plane ride home. At least it did help with math facts- "so, how many glasses of lemonade would I need to sell to buy one of these dolls"?! I can't complain though- history was one of her college majors.
Micki

Faith Williams said...

Do you know the book, Buy Buy Baby by Susan Thomas? It makes a very powerful statement about brand marketing to the very young, including ironic jokes about "character" education. Worth looking at.

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments on this blog makes me laugh and keeps me thinking, too. Today I'm thinking about why anyone would need to use more than one exclamation point, let alone nineteen.

Rotem said...

Wow. I wrote a whole long-winded rant here (i got it out of my system), and it got deleted. ah well.

I will be up front and say that I DESIRED an AG doll when I was a kid (all my friends had several), but was not allowed to have one. I got books instead (and see where it got me?)

I think the most interesting thing I said in the post was:

I recently had the ...er... pleasure (?) of "playing" with an AG doll with an Israeli girl who was visiting my aunt. She is the daughter of a wealthy family friend, and she was the first in her class (she told me with pride) to have an American Girl doll. Then came X and then came Y. She went to the AG store in NY and bought such-and-such... oh, you can imagine the atrocities. As a student in Israel, she had no reference for any of the "historical" aspects of the dolls. And though many can clearly see the pervasive influence America has on Israel (and vice versa), this still feels like cultural imperialism to me. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Complaining that AG dolls promote consumerism is like complaining that rain drops promote tsunamis. Okay, so we live in a big consumerist, piggy, hog-up-all-the-resources country. Let's focus on AG first, though. It all starts with little girls, their dolls and their accessories.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone actually read the books?

Roger Sutton said...

I've read 'em. They're perfectly competent formula fiction, beautifully packaged.

Anonymous said...

Just read through this. Sheesh! I noticed no followup to the comment about Bratz dolls. AG is a product, marketed and promoted as such. It's also a high quality doll that doesn't look like a hooker. If that's porn, bring it on. There is a lower cost doll out there that looks like a girl, not Pamela Anderson, called Only Hearts. They also come with books, though I don't believe the books are as well written. At $15 a doll they are about 3X the cost of a Barbie making them too expensive in the minds of many. Everybody wants a quality product but won't give up the Wal-Mart price. By the way, last year's AG Doll of the Year, named Jess, is a mixed race, home-schooled girl who travels the world. One parent is Asian. Spend 30 minutes actually wandering the aisles of Toys R Us then tell me AG such a terrible thing.

Andy Laties said...

Wow! Cool!

The funny thing is that I would never have thought that a mixed-race/homeschooling/world-travelling identity could be a stereotype! I suppose her parents are NPR-Listening/New-York-Times-reading/Volvo-Driving Liberals.

Anonymous said...

Andy, that's so five years ago. An NPR listening, NYT reading liberal drives a Prius.

Andy Laties said...

Well for that matter, homeschooling is so five years ago too. Now, we unschool.

Allena said...

"When I took my son to Chicago the Only American Girl we saw was Sue (the T-Rex)at the Field Museum!!!
Thank goodness my son is an American Boy"

Hey now Anon Dad, my GIRL and I also skipped AG and went right for SUE : )
Then we went to the Art Museum to see The Weaver by Rivera. She really wanted to see the bloody Ford Hospital paitning by Kahlo, she's weird like that, but it's not there, this was as close as we could get to Kahlo. In case you can't tell, she wouldn't be caught dead in an AG store. She's 7 BTW.

Anonymous said...

I was an AG book buyer too when I was younger and completely enticed by the smooth, matte covers and thick paper. I saved up my pennies and quarters to buy them, only to find that I finished reading them in 10 minutes and had no desire to reread them. So I stopped and went to the library instead.

Although children can be sucked in by marketing, they should be able to figure out the value of a dollar and of quality literature on their own. Or maybe they really are just getting dumber.