What Barbie Could Learn from American Girl

An education policy wonk and father of two takes a tough look at doll marketing

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Palm Beach Post / Zuma

A selection of American Girl Dolls

Barbie turned 53 this month. She’s now several years into an AARP membership and yet wisdom has apparently not come with age. She’s still driving parents like me up the wall with her vapid sexuality. My daughters are in the prime demographic for Barbie and other dolls. Thankfully, at least from where I sit, they’re more excited by American Girl dolls than by Barbies. Both brands are owned by Mattel, yet only one moves beyond tired stereotypes. American Girls manage to teach kids history and resilience and, even with their thick waists and sturdy ankles, the dolls look pretty — and pretty normal.

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I’m not an anti-Barbie extremist— I think it’s ridiculous that a West Virginia legislator tried to ban Barbie in that state a couple years ago because she’s a poor role model. And Barbie has tried to do better. The company has released several career-oriented versions that encourage girls to aim high. There’s a Veterinarian Barbie and a Marine Corps Drill Instructor Barbie (who no doubt would have loved my column last week). Astronaut Barbie made her debut before there were even any women astronauts, so some credit is due for the company’s vision. Yet these aspirational Barbies have fallen flat, largely because there’s no there there. They’re just another hypersexualized Barbie in a slightly different outfit. After a day at the vet or on the space shuttle, Barbie is still off to her hot tub and other age-inappropriate activities. Parents like me are not appeased.

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That’s why I’m suggesting Barbie take a page from the young American Girls and start releasing dolls with elaborate back stories augmented through several books (not to mention loads of swag) detailing, for example, a girl whose father is off fighting in World War II or a plucky student who is trying to get her school to create a girls’ basketball team in the 1970s, tucking in a little Title IX history along the way.

American Girl isn’t perfect. Both brands have stumbled over the issue of race. Mattel was no doubt trying to be progressive in the 1960s when it released a “colored” Francie, basically a Barbie painted brown, and in the 1990s the company unwittingly embodied a racial pejorative with a black Oreo Fun Barbie. Meanwhile, American Girl caught some flack for making its first African-American doll a Civil War-era slave (in subsequent stories she’s freed, but still). But that’s at least a controversy that makes people stop and think. American Girl gets parents to debate when their daughters are old enough to read about slavery, war, divorce and other tough issues they’ll need to learn about eventually.

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I groan at the price — a standard 18-inch American Girl doll and book costs $105! — but I’ll pay it for giving my daughters a healthy self-image and more than a dash of history compared to what Barbie is peddling. But if Mattel is serious about empowering girls, it should start producing low-priced but educational books about, say, Astronaut Barbie’s work on the International Space Station and her success in science and engineering. It’s time for Barbie to be known for something other than thinking math is hard.

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