Right this moment, as I type this, I’m sitting at a sports bar crying.
I’m traveling for work this week and have been in strategic meetings since Monday. I am wearing my professional persona. From early morning until late afternoon (and into our group dinners in the evening) I’ve been wearing the mask of the business person. It’s important to look and act appropriate for the role that you are filling. I’m sincere in that statement. In that particular role, I try to be judicious and measured in my communications with my business partners. As I have not yet been pulled aside in a conversation that starts with “hey, we need to talk about that email that you sent…” I figure I’m successful in presenting the persona that my company expects from me.
But right now, I’m pissed. These are tears of anger. I am NOT professional.
I’m tagging this post with “Goon” which may or may not mean anything to you. If it does, you probably have warm and fuzzy feelings towards my youngest (and sweetest?) boy – The Goon. If not, work backwards a couple of sentences to that link. See it? Click it and share my love for my youngest boy – who just so happens to march to his own beat. If you’ve read about my son before, you’re ready to proceed.
If you’re sitting in this restaurant, wondering why that (handsome) guy is sitting at the bar trying (unsuccessfully) to hide his tears, read on.
I’m about to unload on American Girl and to the extent that they are not responsible for creating our society’s gender norms, my apologies. But for as much as they continue to foster exclusive, rather than inclusive behaviors, shame on them. And please allow me to offer some free marketing advice. (Read on, ye poor lost souls of Marketing…)
The Goon has been asking for an American Girl doll for three years. After the expected sticker shock, The Queen and I thought long and hard about his request. We considered ignoring his clearly-articulated desires. We compromised – from an economic perspective – and bought an American Girl knock off two years ago.
As my prior posts have (hopefully) made clear, I reject any perspective that might attribute anything beyond The Goon’s innate makeup as responsible for the desires that a child might express. He has no agenda. He’s articulating the purest expression of his identity. You should read nothing more – or less – into those words. His choices about color, toys, and expression may mean something, or nothing, about either his gender or his sexuality.
By the way – if you’re reading and attaching any moralistic judgment to his identity, fuck off. You are most definitely not my target audience. I’m comfortable continuing on without your presence. I will do my absolute best to undermine your position of hate – which I happen to think makes the world a worse, rather than better, place.
(If you’re religiously inclined, I’m happy to debate the core message of Jesus’s teachings via a format of your choosing. Drop me a line. Caution – you may find me a surprisingly learned opponent for a heathen.)
So for Christmas 2012, we supported The Goon. The knock-off purchase was a simple acknowledgment of economic decisions. While the price tag was significantly more modest than the supposed-brand name offered, the end result was the same. My boy was the proud owner of a “real” doll.
God help him.
That’s really what all of my posts about The Goon focus on. Please, Power Above, please look out for my little boy. I am his father and I fear for him. Please protect him from this terrible world. Because I know that I can’t – as much as I want to.
He’s owned his dear friend “Francie” for two years. But apparently this knock-off didn’t offer everything that he’d hoped for from his new companion. He hasn’t stopped asking for a “real” American Girl doll. We decided to take the plunge and buy him what he really wanted and put an American Girl doll under the tree.
A couple of days ago, The Queen ordered the specific doll that he picked via their website. Excellent! Until she started paying attention to what their website said. Because every single reference on their website talked about “her”, and “girl”, and every other word that you can imagine that would welcome a little girl – and exclude my sweet little boy.
My wife is a strong, intelligent, independent woman. Those qualities are what attracted me to her a dozen years ago. She wrote to them:
I am sure that most of your customers are little girls. I am sure that most of the visitors to your store are little girls. I am sure that my son is not the first little boy to want an American Girl Doll. As a mother of a little boy who challenges gender “norms” on a regular basis I am reminded daily how we see the world and how the world sees us. It would be nice if the questions I was asked on your website said “child” in your life if the email said hope the “child” enjoys the doll, what is the “child’s” birthday.
My son has asked for this doll for 3 years he is 6 years old he is looking forward to taking a trip to NYC to your store this summer. He will proudly bring his doll to the store and he will be overjoyed to be there. I will be overjoyed to bring him. I am hopeful that he will be welcomed at your store and that he will be treated the same as any other child you see.
To their credit, they responded:
We appreciate your request to make our marketing language more gender neutral. Though we know there are boys who enjoy our products, we do not envision broadening our focus beyond girls at this time. Our founder’s decision to focus solely on girls was based on the view that there were more playthings directed at boys’ interests in the marketplace than there were for young girls. She chose to fill this void with the American Girl dolls and books–a play pattern that remains predominantly a girl-driven activity. Since the first catalogue debuted, we’ve established ourselves as the experts on creating age-appropriate products and experiences that speak to the hearts and minds of girls.
All of our content is based around girlhood and what it means to be a girl growing up today (as well as yesterday), which is a significant point of difference from other doll manufacturers. By remaining keenly focused on girls, we are better able to remain competitive, achieve our mission and allow girls to be girls for just a little while longer.
We know this is not the answer you were hoping to receive from us, and we are sorry for disappointing you. We hope this explanation provides a little more insight into our marketing approach.
We want to assure you that all of our American Girl Stores welcome all children and adults who love their dolls to our store. We hope that you and your son have a wonderful upcoming visit to our store.
I understand their point. They saw an unmet need in the martketplace and acted to meet that demand. That is what successful companies do. I agree with the idea that girls are probably under-empowered in the toy realm. I have 3 nieces who I love dearly. (I loved Frozen for that specific reason among others.) But does supporting and encouraging them have to come at my son’s expense?
Let me be blunt. American Girl company – you’ve missed an opportunity. Change your very specific female-empowering language and dilute your message? Nope. That’s not what I’m asking. But are you truly so dense that you are missing this opportunity that is clearly laid out right in front of you?
Here’s my free bit of marketing advice:
- Why not create another page off your core website that offers an open experience for little boys – like The Goon – who are interested in their very own American Girl doll?
- What’s with this perspective that offering an inclusive experience to my boy will take away from your female-centric positioning?
- Do you not acknowledge that it is gender-exclusive behaviors that have placed little girls at a relative disadvantage in the development of their identity in our social structure?
- Does offering a path for little boys for whom your product might resonate increase, or decrease, your customer base?
- Will practicing exclusive behavior on your part make the world a better or a worse place?
(Again, same offer. I’m happy to debate this issue via a format of your choosing. Drop me a line.)
If I worked in American Girl’s marketing department, I would be thinking about how could I include little boys like The Goon without diluting their core message aimed at empowering young girls. Because – truly – I don’t want to take away from what I see as Doing Good in this world. Developing and cultivating young girls’ confidence? Hell yeah. Deliberately exclude a potential customer base from your marketing strategy? Well, forgive me, my dear, but your founder clearly is a dumb ass.
I’m proud to work for a company that is committed to diversity and inclusive behaviors. I’m humbled, in fact, by how other folks have run with this message – the idea that you need to be proactive and visible in your support of inclusive behaviors in order for people to know where you stand. Thank you, my coworkers, for your commitment to what I see as the the clear demonstration of integrity. Thank you, because I know that you stand with The Goon and me for inclusion.
So why hasn’t American Girl realized this? It’s not an either/or decision. Empowering little girls doesn’t have to mean excluding – and thereby inflicting that same marginalization – upon little boys like The Goon. They could have it all. Offer a portal with an experience that would make my boy feel welcome as opposed to aberrant. Share with me a successful, and uplifting, business model that is about bringing people in, as opposed to cutting people out.
So, yeah, I’m that guy crying in the sports bar. I’ve had to correct a few typos because my hands are shaking. I am protective, and afraid, and angry for my son. I’m Albert Finney, shouting out a window. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.
How do the choices you make define your place in the world? Do they make the world better – or worse? To paraphrase Shelley freely:
Look. ye mighty, upon your works, and despair.
Are you building greatness – or ruin?