Selling American Girlhood: The American Girl Phenomenon

rethinkingschoolsmarketingYour daughter/niece/friend’s child wants a doll, and although you have fond memories of the exploits of Ken and Barbie from your own childhood, you realize that Barbie really isn’t the best role model. And, of course, those brazen, anorexic Bratz things are out of the question. So, you turn to something like the American Girl dolls. Those seem pretty girl-power focused. Plus, they have dolls of different ethnicities. And, there’s a magazine and a series of historical books about each girl, so they inspire reading and learning about history.  So, it seems like a pretty safe, pro-girl choice, event if AG does promote a lot of products, right? Not so fast.

The latest issue of Rethinking Schools magazine has a terrific analysis of the American Girl doll/book/movie/products/girl culture phenomenon. “Marketing American Girlhood“, by Elizabeth Marshall, searches underneath the initial layer of “girl power” and diversity that American Girl purports to promote and examines the actual messages and intentions. Here are three short excerpts from the article to tempt you to read the article:

“However, any potential ‘girl-power’ lessons are short-circuited in these books through the use of historical fiction to deliver traditional lessons about what girls can and should do. While the stories take place in key historical moments, such as the Civil War, and World War II, the girls rarely participate in historical events in any substantial way.”

“The American Girl historical girl collection also purports to be multicultural and includes African American (Addy), Latina (Josefina), and Native American (Kaya) characters. However, this inclusion is superficial and represents the ways in which ‘difference,’ like ‘girl power,’ has become a commodity that American Girl markets to its consumers.”

“Some might argue that American Girl is not as bad as other materials on the market, or as offensive as Barbie or Bratz dolls. This argument misses the key features of what makes this phenomenon so insidious: how corporations play on the feminist and /or educative aspirations of parents, teachers, girls, and young women and turn these toward consumption. American Girl is less about strong girls, diversity or history than about marketing girlhood, about hooking girls, their parents and grandparents into buying the American Girl products and experience.”

As a former youth librarian, when the AG books first came out, I was happy to see something to counteract the lure of licensed-character books and other stuff. Sure, they weren’t meaningful literature, but they had a positive spin and attracted a large number of readers. But then came the stuff: the magazine, the doll accessories that cost more than some real accessories, more dolls, more stuff. Under the guise of girl-power, AG is grooming another generation to become happy consumers,  who don’t question the impact of all that stuff or the messages behind them. Check out the article and share it with parents and friends.

~ Marsha


MOGO Movie Vault: Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

“We’re like in this box. In order to be in that box you have to be strong. You have to be tough. You have to have a lot of girls. You gotta have money. You gotta be a player or a pimp. You know, you gotta be in control. You have to dominate other men, other people.”
~ Byron Hurt, filmmaker

Look at hip-hop videos, listen to the lyrics, and you notice a lot of similarities: guns, violence, women, sex, and money. Filmmaker Byron Hurt is a huge hip-hop fan, but he began to question the representations of manhood and masculinity, the portrayal of women and the prevalence of violence in hip-hop music and videos. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is a record of his journey.

In a society full of hypermasculine violence and posturing in music, movies, video games, and sports and military culture, this film serves as an excellent tool for exploring issues surrounding what it means to be a man (especially a man of color) in America, through the lens of hip-hop.

In his exploration of hip-hop music and culture, Hurt raises questions about several issues, from perceptions of masculinity, to the prevalence of sexism, misogyny and the objectification of women, to the existence of homophobia and homoeroticism in lyrics and images. He also explores the roots of hip-hop and the exploitation and domination of hip-hop by the major music industry, which is primarily controlled by white men.

I learned a lot from this film that I hadn’t thought about before. For example, Hurt points out that guns in the videos are an outlet for the rage that many young men of color feel, that there is a lineage of black men wanting to deny their own frailty, and that guns, violence and posturing are a way for young men to assert themselves and to assert the power that rich white guys manifest in other ways.

One of the interviewees in the film said that “…the only way in which men are allowed to make a connection in the popular culture with women is through sexuality….”  Hurt also pointed out that between 60-70% of hip-hop listeners are young white men, and that a lot of the emphasis on violence and sexism comes from those at the top of the music industry, most of whom are white men.

Hip-Hop was originally shown on PBS, and the companion website includes clips from the documentary, suggested resources, background information about the film and the issues explored, and educational materials, such as a discussion guide.

This is a great video to share with friends, older students, people working with older teens (especially young men), and others interested in issues surrounding masculinity, sexism, violence and media.  (Be aware that the film and website include explicit language and images.)

~ Marsha

Tell the FCC to Just Say No to Embedded Advertising in Children’s TV Programming

childwatchingtvProduct placement has, unfortunately, become commonplace in movies and television. It’s one thing to use such tactics to lure adults into lusting after certain products, but children — especially young children — don’t yet have the capacity to separate ads from content. If you’re concerned about “embedded advertising” in children’s television, you have until Monday, November 17 to share your comments with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). You can do that by going to the FCC’s comment file submission page and filling out the required portions of the cover sheet (the Proceeding is 08-90), and then scrolling down to the “Send a Brief Comment to the FCC”, sharing your comments and clicking the “Send Brief Comment…” button.

To find out a bit more:

Lisa Ray at Parents for Ethical Marketing gives a brief overview of the issue (and her commentary).

Amy Jussel at Shaping Youth gives a nice background and analysis of product placements, especially those focused on kids.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of Aaron Escobar.

Are You Sold? Explore the Hidden Costs & Influences of Ads

Many of us think that we’re not that influenced by ads. We’ve developed our brand loyalty over the years due to in-depth research, careful study and solid choices of the best types of products that meet our needs, right? Um, yeah, sure.

Try these two little quizzes. The first one doesn’t even show you the logo; it just describes it in a couple of words. Can you name the company the logo belongs to? (Note: answers are in the 1st comment.)

A. Swoosh
B. Dripping coffee cup
C. Peacock
D. Golden arches
E. Big red spoon
F. Fruit w/ bite taken out
G. Mountain w/ stars above peak
H. Giraffe head
I. Silhouette rabbit’s head w/ bowtie
J. Red roof w/ name of company below

What about these taglines. How many can you name? Some of these are decades old. (Answers are in the 1st comment.)

1. The happiest place on earth.
2. Must see TV.
3. I’m lovin’ it.
4. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
5. Where’s the beef?
6. So easy, even a caveman could do it.
7. What’s in your wallet?
8. Just do it.
9. A diamond is forever.
10. Finger-lickin’ good.

How many of these companies could you identify? How many of these companies do you actually purchase products or services from? Even if you had trouble with some of these, I’m sure there are plenty that you could list. How many people can list whole slew of TV characters or company logos or taglines, but can’t tell you what continent Iraq is on or who the U.S. Secretary of State is, for example?

The point isn’t to make anyone feel embarrassed; it’s to point out how ubiquitous marketing and advertising are in our lives, and how susceptible we can be to their messages, without even knowing it. Our culture inundates us with marketing and advertising every day; almost every where we look, someone is telling us we won’t be happy or successful or sexy or worthy unless we buy what they have to offer.

But, not only do we often neglect to pay attention to advertising’s impact on us and our habits, but we also often don’t consider the hidden messages, suffering, oppression and exploitation that are inherent in many ads and their products and services.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, advocate or concerned citizen, here’s a little activity you can do yourself (or with your kids, friends, family, students, workmates, etc.) to help analyze ads.

Take one or more (age-appropriate) ads, and ask these questions:

a) What product or service is the ad selling?
b) What deep need or desire is the ad appealing to? (i.e., Does the ad appeal to your desire to have love, happiness, wealth, beauty, friendship, security, etc.?)
c) Who is the intended audience, and what do you suppose their reaction to the ad might be?
d) Who is excluded by the ad? (i.e., what classes, races, body types, gender, etc.)?
e) What suffering, exploitation, or destruction is hidden from view? (In other words, what suffering to people or animals does the production of the product or the generation of the service lead to and/or what destruction to the environment does the product or service cause?)
f) How does the ad affect your personal desires, self image, beliefs, and consumer choices?
g) What would life be like without the product or service that the ad is selling?

Here’s an example that I used in my presentation at the peace and justice conference last weekend (this activity is from IHE).

Here’s the ad. Below are the questions and potential responses. (In case you can’t read the ad text, it says: “Need to lose a little weight before your wedding?”

a) What product or service is the ad selling?

Slim Fast

b) What deep need or desire is the ad appealing to? (i.e., does the ad appeal to your desire to have love, happiness, wealth, beauty, friendship, security, etc.?)

Acceptance, to be loved, to feel good about self, to be thin & fit, to be happy, to get a man.

c) Who is the intended audience, and what do you suppose their reaction to the ad might be?

Women, especially brides-to-be, especially brides-to-be with body image issues. It might also be (to a lesser degree) for men who have certain expectations about women’s body types.

d) Who is excluded by the ad? (i.e., what classes, races, body types, etc.)?

Men, people of color, people who are gay, people without a lot of money.

e) What suffering, exploitation, or destruction is hidden from view? (In other words, what suffering to people or animals does the production of the product or the generation of the service lead to and/or what destruction to the environment does the product or service cause?)


Three primary ingredients in the product are:

  • milk = hides the suffering of dairy cows and veal calves, as well as the environmental impact of raising cattle; hides the discomfort of those who are lactose intolerant
  • sugar = hides the habitat destruction inherent with sugar plantations, as well as the frequent worker mistreatment
  • cocoa = hides the connection of chocolate to slave labor/child labor
  • aluminum can = hides the destruction of the environment that comes with bauxite mining, as well as the toxins from the chemicals/dyes used to make the can’s label
  • Unilever = the product is made by Unilever; Unilever also owns Dove (see info about the impacts of palm oil), as well as Axe body spray (well-know for its sexist commercials).

f) How does the ad affect your personal desires, self image, beliefs, and consumer choices?

Self-esteem, need this product to be healthy, thin and loved.

g) What would life be like without the product or service that the ad is selling?

Fine. It’s really unnecessary to my life.

Try it yourself with some of the ads you see. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you become aware of all the messages surrounding you and your family.

~ Marsha

America, the Beauty-Obsessed

Men making a movie about beauty? Uh oh! Is it another movie about “hot chicks,” unnaturally thin waifs and women who are Botoxed, waxed, liposucked, sculpted and styled to within an inch of their lives (or just airbrushed and Photoshopped to look that way)? Nope! America the Beautiful is about beauty, but it’s a movie made by men in support of women. Filmmaker Darryl Roberts has created this documentary to bring attention to our obsession with perceptions of beauty in the U.S., and the impact such an obsession has on everyone.

Thanks to images of beauty promoted through a plethora of avenues, from celebs to advertisers to media to modeling to plastic and cosmetic surgeons, to sometimes even our own parents, our perceptions of what’s beautiful, and what makes an acceptable model, celebrity, woman, mate, person, beauty regime, etc., have evolved into something strange, toxic and sometimes shocking, and it’s influencing our children at younger and younger ages.

As part of the film, Roberts interviews a variety of media, entertainment and social professionals, from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to feminist playwright Eve Ensler to former Seventeen editor Atoosa Rubenstein. Much of the film focuses on the experiences of Gerren Taylor, who was discovered as a model at 12, became wildly successful, and then was dumped a couple years later because she no longer fit the modeling industry’s definition of perfection.

The film reveals a variety of sad and horrific realities, such as:

  • A 1990s study of the effects of television on the native people of Fiji showed that, before the arrival of TV, no girls were bulimic or anorexic; three years after TV arrived in Fiji, 11 percent of girls admitted to throwing up to control their weight.
  • The cocktail waitress who was fired from her job for not wearing makeup.
  • Magazine industry reps who state that putting “average” people on the cover isn’t an option because it would cost them money.
  • The 6 foot tall, 130 pound model who’s told she has to lose 15 pounds.

You can see the trailer on the website.

America the Beautiful has only recently been released in theaters and is making its way around the country. (NOTE: This movie is coming to Portland to the Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10 theater the weekend of September 5.)

Although the film is rated R (some strong language and shots of cosmetic surgery), it provides a great opportunity to explore and discuss issues of beauty, marketing and advertising, body image and more, especially with teenagers and pre-teens.

Find out more:

Roberts writes about his experiences in a Huffington Post article.

A recent article about the film from the Long Beach, CA, Press-Telegram.

~ Marsha

Of Tots, Tweens, Tarts & Tummytucks

Strawberry ShortcakeAh, childhood. The fun, the games, the high heels, the weight control regimens, the thong underwear, the moms and tots classes for practicing come hither looks. In case you haven’t been paying attention, the products being marketed to our kids have gotten a major facelift (and lipo), and the ‘tudes they’re promoting have become more than a little sexualized. When I saw this article (free registration required) in the NY Times about “beloved” characters being “reimagined” for the 21st century, I was inspired to write about it, but then I saw that Dr. Robyn over at Kiss My Assets beat me to it and wrote a great post analyzing this new trend.

Characters from past childhoods are being retooled — made thinner and cuter, if girls and more muscular and cool if guys — to supposedly appeal to a new, hip generation of kids. But with these renovations come new images of what boys and girls are supposed to act and look like. When I was a kid, my toy horse looked like a horse. Now young girls can pony up to get Strutz, slutty-looking horses wearing high heels, made for “girls who are on the cutting edge of what’s hot in fashion.” For 4-8 year-olds.

Of course, since tots, kids and tweens don’t have a lot of disposable cash (though that’s changing), it’s parents (usually mom) who are snapping up products such as high heels for infants (yes, they’re supposed to be a joke, but still!), or lower back temporary tattoos, or porn-like Halloween costumes, not to mention kiddie thongs, bras and t-shirts with suggestible sayings. The issue of the hypersexualization of children — especially young girls — is starting to get media attention, but with the insane number of media messages and ads kids are exposed to each day, the “playing field” is a little uneven.

So, what about these newer, thinner characters, and products once only part of the adult realm that are now marketed to today’s kids and tweens? Harmless fun? A major concern? What’s the MOGO choice?

~ Marsha