Oh, You Beautiful Doll

Dolls are in the news recently, particularly because American Girl, Inc., owned by Mattel and makers of the American Girl historical dolls, has come under very significant fire from Donald Wildmon’s right-wing American Family Association for teaming up with Girls, Inc. , an advocacy organization for young women which they claim is pro-choice. If you aren’t worried about appearing to support right-wing organizations by going to their sites, you can read the AFA’s own statement of its concerns. The Girls Inc. site doesn’t acknowledge the controversy, nor does it take an obvious stand on abortion (let alone lesbian rights).

We’ve also been reading about and researching Muslim dolls, thanks to a comparatively recent New York Times article. Fulla, the doll featured in this article, is very Barbie-like, with high-heeled feet and developed breasts. If you poke around on the manufacturer’s rather confusing (to Westerners, anyway) home page, you’ll find that most of her outfits are contemporary and stylish, and the hijab pictured in this article is hard to find.

In comparison, Razanne is a doll with flat feet, small breasts, and a wide variety of all-modest-dress outfits.

In other words, Razanne is in the same relationship to Fulla as the unsexy, historically grounded American Girl dolls are to Barbie.

And they all have related social purposes: they exist to train girls in how to be feminine consumers, and to reinforce parental values. One reason the American Girl controversy is so intense is that, although the American Girl line was not started for these reasons, some parents who want to inculcate conservative non-sexy “family values” have found these dolls very attractive. So those parents feel actively betrayed when the dolls which stand in opposition to the Barbies they distrust are linked to liberally-coded concepts like “empowerment” and “freedom.” Where’s a parent to turn if even the American historical dolls are behaving like feminists?

Similarly, Fulla and Razanne represent different sets of Islamic parental values, and two approaches to training young Islamic girls.

Actually, we agree with Donald Wildmon that dolls have power, and the values inherent in the design of the dolls we play with affect our view of the world.

8 thoughts on “Oh, You Beautiful Doll

  1. I’m getting an impression that there aren’t any ordinary human level of sexuality dolls. (To be fair, the American Girl dolls seem to be a lot younger than Barbie.) Maybe dolls are supposed to be strong images so they aren’t going to be as intermediate as real people.

    Has Barbie gotten thinner? I haven’t really looked at a Barbie for a long time, but it seems to me that the Barbie I had when I was a kid (late 50s/early 60s) wasn’t emaciatied.

  2. Oh, yes, Barbie has gotten thinner & more unrealistically proportioned & devoted to promoting all those ditzy, clothes-obsessed, fatphobic ideals dominant in this culture. I reserve judgment on the American girl dolls, though I have a feeling that if the right wing hates them, they are doing something right, but I would do anything in my power to prevent a Barbie doll falling into the hands of any child I care about.

  3. “The Girls Inc. site doesn’t acknowledge the controversy, nor does it take an obvious stand on abortion (let alone lesbian rights).”

    Actually … it does.

    It takes a bit of digging, but its there. If you follow their Advocacy page to the Girl’s Bill of Rights, and drill down on the statement that “Girls have the right to accept and appreciate their bodies” — oy, what a radical notion! — you’ll get to this page:


    which says, in part:


    “Girls Incorporated encourages all girls to develop positive sexual identities and to function comfortably as responsible sexual beings. We recognize that the family is the primary source of information about sex and we help girls and young women communicate with their families about sexuality.”

    (Blattidean interruption: I can see where Wildmon is upset about this. After all, family values clearly forbid families from discussing sexuality with their girls and young women. End of interruption.)

    “To make responsible decisions about sexuality, pregnancy and parenthood, girls need and have a right to sensitive, truthful sexuality education; convenient access to safe, effective methods of contraception and protection from disease; and referral to comprehensive information, counseling, clinical and other services that support their responsible decisions. We recognize that any sizable group of girls includes those who face issues related to their sexual orientation or that of a family member and who face discrimination based on this sexual orientation. Girls have a right to positive, supportive environments and linkages to community resources for dealing with issues of sexual orientation.

    “Reproductive Freedom

    “Girls Incorporated affirms that girls and young women should make responsible decisions about sexuality, pregnancy and parenthood.

    “We recognize the right of all women to choose whether, when, and under what circumstances to bear children. Reproductive freedom and responsibility are essential to other rights and opportunities, including pursuit of education, employment, financial security and a stable and fulfilling family life. Restrictions of reproductive choice are especially burdensome for young women and poor women. Girls Incorporated supports a woman’s freedom of choice, a constitutional right established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 in Roe vs. Wade.”

    So there it is. Girls, Inc. supports “positive sexual identities” and “positive, supportive environments … for dealing with issues of sexual orientation.” Plus, it “supports a woman’s freedom of choice.”

    I hate to say it, but Wildmon got his facts right.

    I am, therefore, going to figure out what girls in my extended family might be interested in “I Can” bracelets. Good for Girls, Inc. and American Girls, says I says I.

  4. Thanks for the information. I will heartily recommend American Girl dolls to anyone I know looking for a doll for a child. Girls, Inc. sounds as if it is organized by people who have their heads on straight, & as if the whole thing is the antithesis of Barbie & the messages the whole Barbie collection sends.

  5. Sara, the Iranian competitor for Barbie-age, in contrast to Barbie looks more cabbage-patch-kid-like.


    It’s not only the body shape but the character promoted. “In the Fulla television ads in the Middle East, the doll has a sweet and high-pitched voice, and sings in Arabic. She is also shown baking a cake for her friend, praying and reading before bed. The toy is sold for around US$ 28 at virtual stores in the Arab market.” http://www.anba.com.br/ingles/noticia.php?id=8769

    But regardless of how the image, physical or social limits, is sold, dolls are a tool. Kids don’t stick to what we think they see. To their credit and our debit, we see a dolly but they see a lever, a hammer, plastic to disassemble and possibility. They like make believe and monsters and toys not proportioned like life.

    With a toy, they are in control. They get the range rover set and drive off with ken in passenger seat. With the old barbies you can pop the breasts in flatter.You can scratch them and melt them more anatomically correct. You buy or make them clothes you like.

    I think kids are savvy and recognize the limitations of the dolls and change them. Would they not do this Razanne because her body shape is more appealing by being more typically proportioned?

  6. Dan’l,

    THANKS for doing the digging around to correct our link. I appreciate it!

    I’m a little link dyslexic so it will be changed tomorrow by someone who isn’t.


    I agree that kids use toys transgressively. And that “kids are savvy and recognize the limitations of the dolls and change them.”

    But their original intent is not expressed just in the toy. It is barraged at kids by the culture/media and that has a really powerful effect. Barbie has helped make generations of girls feel inadequate. I say this is spite of the fact that one of my daughters decorated her room with headless leather-wrapped Barbies.

    If I remember correctly American Girl dolls were originally designed for a feminist market. It’s interesting how their design appealed so strongly to the right wing.

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