Open Letter to American Girl

08/16/2011 05:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011
  • John Riofrio Assistant Professor, College of William and Mary

Recently I published an opinion piece that explained, in somewhat emotional terms I suppose, the importance that my daughter's American Girl doll, Josefina, has to our family and the relief we felt when we discovered that American Girl has a doll hospital that fixes broken dolls. The unvarnished truth is that we all love Josefina. When we travel both my wife and I are on constant vigil to ensure that Josefina remains firmly by our side, and my daughter, Isabela, loves Josefina so much that when she discovered that American Girl publishes its own series of books, activity guides and even a magazine, she was hooked. She reads her American Girl Babysitter's Guide somewhat religiously, dreaming of the day when she is old enough to babysit. She has been begging us to buy her the American Girl Doll Dining activity book, so my wife and I have taken advantage of the opportunity to teach Isabela about earning and saving money by allowing her and her brother to launch a lemonade stand (I've been impressed with how few people have enough free time on their hands to slow down, park the car for a minute and pay 25 cents for a cup of lemonade, but that's a topic for a different essay). We've encouraged Isabela in all of these interests and even went as far as to subscribe to your magazine.

We received our first issue earlier this summer and, to be frank, I'm concerned. As a professor of cultural studies I worry about representation. How do the texts and images of our daily lives (novels, films, videos, magazines, photographs, and advertisements) alter or guide our sense of self? Are there recurring patterns to the texts of our social fabric? What do these patterns tell us about our society? As a professor I tangle (sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes sadly) with these questions on my own and with my students keeping the topics, to a degree, at an emotional distance. We can talk sincerely, openly and directly about persistent racism in the representation of African Americans and Latinos, and I try to keep my cool, try to rely primarily on my reason to guide our discussions. But as a father, I find that I'm unable to maintain the same distance.

As the father of two Latino children, and the stepfather of two Latinas, I am acutely aware, for example, of how our society's general suspicion of bilingualism manifests itself in public stares when we speak in Spanish. And as the father of a little girl who loves her American Girl doll, I am often overwhelmed at the thought of guiding her through a social maze that expects nine year olds to stop playing with dolls and start wearing makeup. Recently, I was reintroduced to the work of Jean Kilbourne and her series "Killing Us Softly" which looks unflinchingly at how advertising affects women's self image. Sadly, there was little that was surprising in terms of the message. As Kilbourne herself notes, she (and many others) have been working on, and talking about, this material for 40 years. We know that advertising makes women feel badly about themselves. And yet, what's startling and disheartening is how little we've been able to use that knowledge to change anything. Kilbourne begins the video "Killing Us Softly Part 4" with the statement that in the last 40 years things have actually gotten worse. She shows photographs of a model who literally died of anorexia and who modeled up until the very end, a fact that leads Kilbourne to astutely observe that the models literally can't get any skinnier. The unspoken question is whether or not the advertisement industry would want them to if they could: "If only they could drop a few more pounds think about how much we'd save on photo-shopping expenses." The entire video is disheartening and disturbing, and I couldn't help being struck by the scenes of young, college-aged women listening to Kilbourne's talk with rapt attention as she clearly narrated the way in which advertising was killing their self-esteem and with it their sense of self.

But the point which seemed to reach out through the screen and shake me by the shoulders was Kilbourne's statement that "girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they are 8, 9, 10 years old, but they hit adolescence and they hit a wall." This wall leads often, tragically often, to a nagging self-loathing at best and severe, life-threatening eating disorders at worst. What Kilbourne is saying to me is that my little girl, my beautiful daughter who has described her little potbelly as being "fluffy" and who loves to wear bikinis even though her belly is "puffy," is just a couple of years away from seeing herself as fat, as unattractive and as abnormal.

What does all of this have to do with American Girl? Well, the truth is that we've trusted you, American Girl, with our daughter's imagination. We've opened the door for you to come in to our house and participate in my daughter's daily life, our entire family's daily life; we've done so with the assumption that a company that offers girls a doll hospital to fix their injured dolls does so because it cares about them, the dolls, yes, but especially the little girls. Maybe I'm naïve. Maybe this kind of service, this kind of loving attention to a broken doll, is just good business, but I'd like to think it runs deeper than that. And so my question to American Girl is why -- if they care about little girls, if they want them to grown up with a life full of imagination, to grow up and be caring, responsible babysitters -- why aren't you doing anything to act out against what seems to be the biggest issue that girls, both big and little, face on a daily basis? Flip through your own magazine. It's full of ways to be a better person, to have clean, safe fun with friends. And yet every picture is of adolescent models: thin girls who in a few short years might be walking the catwalk, selling us the products and the body image that we're supposed to want and have, but ultimately can't and won't. I look through your magazine and I don't see my daughter. I don't see normal girls, some who are short, some who are pudgy or overweight alongside the tall thin ones. The reality I see in your magazine isn't the reality of Isabela and some of her friends and classmates; it's the reality of an industry that profits by telling us that we're not good enough. American Girl magazine runs the risk of telling my daughter, aged seven, that she's not good enough. Is this the best you can do? Do I, as a consumer but mostly as a parent, have the right to ask you to be better? To ask you, maybe even implore you, to care about my daughter's health and well-being with the same loving attention that you cared for Josefina when she broke her arm? Maybe I don't have that right, but my daughter, all our daughters, deserve more: our best effort, and yours.