American Girl Dolls: The Conservative Mom's Dilemma
In a culture where wholesome, age-appropriate toys and media are hard to come by, conservative moms face an additional dilemma.
Conservative values are ridiculed and misrepresented too often in "kid culture," while progressive and more liberal ideology is promoted in subtle and not-so subtle ways. For the politically conscious conservative mom, that means double duty work, monitoring for sexual content and political indoctrination in our kid's toys and entertainment.
I happen to be a big fan of the sweet and age-appropriate American Girl dolls. Moms like me are willing to shell out for these pricey dolls in lieu of their slutty (and more affordable) competitor, Bratz dolls. We'll even spring for the furniture, books, movies and the overpriced American Girl café experience in hopes that our daughters will hang on to their fleeting girlhood for just a little bit longer.
In addition to being refreshingly wholesome, American Girl dolls are also educational. Their most popular line features dolls from different eras in American history. There's Felicity from the Colonial era; Addy, an African-American former slave girl; and Molly, who is growing up in the midst of World War II.
My daughter fell in love with Kit Kittredge, a blonde, bobbed spunky Depression-era girl who learns to adapt to her family's decreased standard of living. Like the other dolls, Kit Kittredge's story is told through a series of books and more recently, it spawned a fairly well-made film adaptation, "Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl," starring Abigail Breslin and Chris O'Donnell. The books are beautifully illustrated and the last few pages contain a brief historical overview, complete with photos and drawings to provide young readers with context and background on their doll.
This summer, my daughter spent several lazy afternoons reading about Kit and the struggles so many American's faced during that difficult period. Interestingly, the Great Depression is not an unfamiliar subject to my 10-year-old; given the current state of our economy and the fact that her dad (and my husband) is currently running for Congress, she's been privy to many conversations about history, politics, and even the very policies that led to and (in my view) exacerbated the Depression.
While reading the series, my daughter informed me that the "bad guy" in Kit's story was her rich Uncle Hendrick, the one person in her family who disagreed with FDR's New Deal and his handling of the economic crisis. She was even astute enough to notice the constant references to Kit's favorite hero, "Robin Hood" -- the ultimate redistributor of wealth. In fact, in the movie, a hobo teenager she befriends asks another character if it's OK to steal from the rich if one is poor and the man, a benevolent doctor who tends to the poor in the hobo "jungle", says 'yes'.
When Kit's brother is forced to forego college, he joins the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), so he can send money back home to help his family. When Uncle Hendrick criticizes these programs and advocates for less government intervention and freer markets to help the faltering economy, he's predictably derided as cold, heartless and insensitive.
My daughter brought this to my attention because this wasn't the first time we discussed the portrayal of fiscal conservatives or Republicans as greedy or downright mean in children's movies and books. Remember the irascible capitalist Daddy Warbucks in the musical Annie? Despite being a job creator, possessing an unquestionable work ethic and adopting an orphan, he wasn't fully redeemed until he agreed (after some musical cajoling from Annie, Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR) to promote the New Deal.
In the animated PBS series, Arthur, Binky and his friends get their first taste of local politics when they champion the construction of bike paths in their community. When the elderly and slightly crabby lunch lady refuses to sign their petition, there's no explanation, she simply thinks it's a bad idea. Without any context or discussion about where the money for bike paths comes from (taxpayers! China!), impressionable kids are left wondering why anyone would be against bike paths. Again, the fiscally conservative citizen is just callous and uncaring.
Like Annie and the otherwise benign Arthur series, the American Girl dolls put politically conservative moms in a difficult spot. On the one hand, we love the wholesome and educational aspects of the product, yet we resent having progressive ideology and versions of events presented to our children as facts; and we take exception to the antipathy toward conservatives, businessmen, and entrepreneurs who are so often portrayed as heartless and greedy. We've all benefited from free markets and capitalism, but our children are rarely taught its virtues and too often presented with its faults.
In the end, I'm glad my daughter read the Kit Kittredge books and we both enjoyed the movie. Through the doll and the series, she learned a lot of great things about the Depression, especially about the resourcefulness and charity that marked the era. And frankly, the subtle and not-so-subtle bias of the books and movie afforded us the opportunity to delve deeper into history, economics and possible solutions to get our country out of the mess we currently find ourselves in.
Equally important, she's learning a valuable lesson about questioning sources of information. It's a reminder to me too. Whether it's a text book, movie or toy, it's my job to be informed and offer my kids the other side of the story when I feel it's not being told.
On the other hand, in a culture that is perilously pushing young girls into a premature adolescence, I'm also just grateful for sweet-looking dolls and a 10-year-old daughter who is still interested in playing with them.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.